Between the 1880’s and 1940’s, the Chinese tobacco industry flourished immensely due to the invention and mass production of cigarettes. Today, China is the largest producer and consumer of tobacco, with crops owned by other tobacco-selling countries (such as America), producing about forty percent of the world’s tobacco leaf crop. In the 1800’s, tobacco was already a popular substance in China, but when the British-American Tobacco Company – the company that facilitated China’s tobacco production – introduced the cheaper alternative, the machine-rolled cigarette, the tobacco industry grew quickly within half a century. Today, China’s tobacco industry pays billions of dollars in taxes to the government, and has made cigarettes part of everyday life for people around the world.

Cigarettes have become quite a popular product in smokers’ lives, especially in China. The smoking tobacco industry has blossomed due to the amount of cigarettes purchased daily by the Chinese population as well as exported products to other countries. The tobacco industry has gotten so profitable that paying taxes, in full, can be done with the blink of an eye. Although cigarettes may be the most popular form of smoking tobacco in today’s world, it did not gain popularity until the early 20th century when factory-made cigarettes became popular. The Chinese economy has prospered because of the tobacco industry, and without it, China would have a terrible time succeeding. Many jobs revolve around the growth of tobacco as well as the manufacturing of cigarettes. Because China produces around 40% of the world’s tobacco, it’s easy for cigarettes to be made and exported. Since the 1900’s, cigarettes have gained popularity by being affordable by most middle-class citizens as well as an easy-to-use product. The tobacco industry has grown with the population as well as trade with America and many other countries for cigarettes. China has become quite successful economically because of cigarettes, and the history behind the tobacco industry goes back to the 1500’s. Factory-made cigarettes changed Chinese economics starting around 1900 and have since then helped China become one of the most successful countries in the world.

china tobacco

It is estimated that China has 350 million smokers (which is more than the whole smoking population of the United States). About 40% of the world’s tobacco leaf crop was produced in China in 2007 and produced about 50% of Yunnan, China’s tax revenues. Yunnan produces over 40% of China’s tobacco crop, for its high elevation and plentiful rainfall makes the land perfect for cultivation. China’s farmers and agricultural communities depend on the cultivation of tobacco, for it is a high-return crop. If China no longer produced tobacco, thousands of jobs would be lost. Smoking tobacco has increased the death rate in China, and, because of this, there are many health organizations trying to minimize the production of tobacco, which could devastate China’s economy.

Because of the popularity of cigarettes in China, tobacco has started being used as a social currency. According to many new studies, there are many acts of giving and sharing cigarettes in China, which plays a major role in China’s high tobacco usage. There is a difference in giving an individual cigarette versus giving a whole pack of cigarettes to someone, for the Chinese culture is still very alive today. Unfortunately, in order for the Chinese to reduce tobacco usage, traditional tobacco control efforts must be combined with culture-specific approaches. The regular exchange of cigarettes has normalized smoking across the Chinese society and makes tobacco even more acceptable than in other countries. China is the largest producer and consumer of tobacco, and in order for health to increase in China, the consumption of tobacco must be reduced.

china tobacco

Tobacco was already in use and quite popular when the machine-rolled cigarette was introduced to China by the British-American Tobacco Company (BAT). The rise of cigarettes arose in 1880 when this machine was invented and introduced into the world, including the United States. Although tobacco was already consumed everyday by thousands of people, the cigarette industry simply increased the dependence of Chinese people on tobacco. Around 1930, the tobacco industry was so full of tobacco companies (especially in China), it became competitive. Some of these Chinese companies had “predominately female labor force[s] [that] created ‘brand-name’ cigarettes that were highly standardized” and seemed factory-made, although they were hand-rolled. “Cigarettes…[were] neither totally new nor completely old, neither purely a foreign industrial import nor an indigenous handicraft…[they were] instead the product of the dynamic interactions between global and local processes” and created something quite popular, for China has the highest number of tobacco smokers in the world (Benedict, 132). The Industrial Revolution changed economics, so pre-rolled cigarettes started to be sold at higher prices and were considered “luxury items” for wealthy consumers (Benedict, 133). Chinese patrons smoked tobacco from pipes or took snuff, but once the twentieth century came around, factory-made cigarettes took over. The British-American Tobacco Company was very successful with the introduction of factory-made cigarettes because of its “skillful advertising, aggressive pricing, and a willingness to undercut all competitors” (Benedict, 137). “As time went on, the increased availability of cheap domestic alternatives…made cigarettes even more popular in many markets around the country”, but pipe tobacco was still “not completely displace[d]” (Benedict, 139).

war in china

China was a huge help in the tobacco industry for America, which is now a huge importer of Chinese products, as well as an exporter of garbage and other materials. In the beginning of the Jim Crow Era (1877-1954), tobacco was widely used, and cigarettes would not come into play until the 1900’s. The fact that America pretty much depended on China for tobacco-producing land and cigarette factories is an important factor in the prosperity of Chinese economy. “Southern identity became a grounding in China for a new transnational business culture”, which was part of the start of globalism (Enstad, 2007, 13.4). The increase of cigarettes in the twentieth century did not only affect Chinese economy, it affected American, British, and many other countries’ economies as well.

The southern part of America, which was the primary tobacco-producing area in America, started growing tobacco and producing cigarettes in China in the early twentieth century. Because of this foreign relationship, it showed that China helped the world prosper by providing land and business for other countries. In the beginning, China hired US employees to work in cigarette-producing factories, and then, once America gained more money and power, it began to build factories of its own in China. Soon after, American seed was beginning to be grown in Chinese fields because the tobacco used in American cigarettes was of higher quality than the tobacco used in Chinese cigarettes. Because of this integration of American and Chinese businesses, the ways that both countries worked, in terms of business, was changed. The work in sales and factory supervision was dependent on the Chinese, and, in turn, the “overseas business community [facilitated] the emergence of a particular structure of global capitalism” (Enstad, 2007, 13.4). In conclusion, southern identity “was central to creating global identities and the web of relationships that would constitute global captialism” (Enstad, 2007, 13.4).

Newspaper articles about the Sino-Japanese war destroying Chinese and American tobacco leap crops near the Yangtze River were important to the smoking population of America. Fortunately, at the time, there was still an untouched tobacco leaf crop in Shanghai that could possibly dominate the Chinese tobacco industry, which is what the American tobacco industry wanted. During this time, the Sino-Japanese war was happening. Tobacco was at its peak in the 1930’s, for cigarette packs were added into C-packs for the US soldiers. The tobacco industry was booming in both America AND China; it was the new trend that everyone loved. In addition to America’s involvement in the Chinese tobacco industry, an article from the New York Times either advertised or informed others of farming jobs in China. Information provided in these newspaper articles included how much a person made per year, how much they would make per hour doing one job compared to the other as well as what was given to the man that had a farming job. Along with pay, the workers received food, clothing, noonday meals, head shavings, and tobacco. Although this information was regarding Chinese workers, it gave insight to others about how the workers were treated while producing American tobacco.


In conclusion, China’s involvement in tobacco has been quite significant as far as its economic standing. If it weren’t for the British-American Tobacco Company, China would have not become so successful in the mass production of cigarettes. Without cigarettes, today, China would not be the largest producer and consumer of tobacco. The involvement of America and Britain not only helped China prosper, but created a stronger relationship between the countries, for foreign relations proved to make each country successful whether it was business or production. From tobacco being smoked from a pipe to cigarettes, China definitely progressed from the late 1800’s to the early/mid-1900’s.


British-American Tobacco Company Limited is among the first batch of firms that introduced cigarettes to China. Its factory in the Pudong district of Shanghai by 1919 was producing more than 243 million cigarettes per week.

More than a quarter of China’s population (around 350 million people) are smokers, which accounts for 35 per cent of the world’s smokers.

Scenes from the tobacco harvest: Why China can’t quit smoking. August 30, 2011.

Two men smoke cigarettes on a street in Beijing. January 7, 2011.

Works Cited: 

Benedict, Carol. Golden-Silk Smoke : A History of Tobacco in China, 1550-2010. Berkley, California: University of California Press, 2011. 131-148.

Enstad, Nan. “To Know Tobacco: Southern Identity in China in the Jim Crow Era”. Southern Cultures, 2007. 6-23. Volume 13. Number 4. Accessed on October 3rd, 2014, 

“FARM LIFE IN CHINA.” New York Times (1857-1922), Jun 30, 1889.

FlorCruz, Jaime. “China clouded in cigarette smoke”. CNN. (January 7, 2011). Accessed September 20th, 2014.

Frick, Mike. “Scenes from the tobacco harvest: Why China can’t quit smoking”. Danwei. (August 30, 2011). Accessed September 7, 2014 from

Rich, Zachary C. and Shuiyuan Xiao. “Tobacco as a Social Currency: Cigarette Gifting and Sharing in China.” Nicotine & Tobacco Research 14, no. 3 (2012): 258-263.

“WAR IN CHINA SPURS TOBACCO MARKETS.” New York Times (1923-Current File), Sep 07, 1937.