Footage has emerged of a toddler in China smoking a cigarette – as onlookers laugh and encourage him.
The child, who is believed to be aged just two or three, sits on a chair in front of a low table in what appears to be a courtyard of sorts. He holds the cigarette in his left hand, taking drags from it in a manner that is disturbingly adept.
A number of passers-by witness the shocking scene but no one intervenes to stop the little boy, instead expressing amusement. At one point, a woman walks over to the youngster and scolds him but fails to take the cigarette from him.
And apart from a few grimaces, the toddler appears relatively at ease, although he is seen at times coughing and spluttering. It is believed he is mimicking a man out of view of the camera who is also smoking.
The footage was obtained by liveleak.com and has sparked fresh debate about the scale of China’s tobacco habit.
China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of tobacco and also has the highest number of smoking-related deaths in the world.
Last month the World Health Organisation released a report urging the country to place graphic warnings on cigarette packets, as in many other countries around the world.
It is thought that if the rate of smoking is not reduced, it could cause three million deaths a year in China by 2030, according to statistics from health experts in the country. It is thought that around 30 per cent of the population of China smokes, which equates to 300 million people.
However, at the end of last year, smoking in public places such as schools and hospitals was banned in the country.
It comes after another Chinese two-year-old, Tong Liangliang, was pictured lighting up after being taught how to smoke by his father. His family believed the habit would alleviate pain caused by a hernia.
One liveleak user called the footage “sick”, while another said the child was being used to attract attention to his family’s market stall.
China produces 42 per cent of the world’s cigarettes. The China National Tobacco Corporation is by sales the largest single manufacturer of tobacco products in the world and boasts a monopoly in mainland China, generating between 7 and 10 per cent of government revenue.
Tobacco control legislation does exist, but public enforcement is rare to non-existent outside of the most highly internationalised cities, such as Shanghai and Beijing.
Yang Gonghuan, deputy director of the National Centre of Disease Control of China, said that progress on tobacco control is not moving quickly because the government derives large tax revenues from tobacco sales, and the industry employs a large workforce.
Nearly 60 per cent of male Chinese doctors are smokers, which is the highest proportion in the world.
Smoking is a social custom in many parts of China and giving cigarettes at any social interaction is a sign of respect and friendliness
Smoking in certain public places in Hong Kong has been banned since 1 January 2007. The smoking ban now includes indoor workplaces, most public places including restaurants, internet cafés, public lavatories, beaches and also most public parks.
Some bars, karaoke parlours, saunas and nightclubs were exempt until 1 July 2009.