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Smoking for a living: The strange tale of Li Hui, a Chinese tobacco appraiser

As one of hundreds of “tobacco appraisers” in China, Li Hui, a petite, pony-tailed mother, has been smoking up to 30 cigarettes a day for more than 20 years.

“It’s my job, and I like it,” Li explained in a long profile in the Global Times, a Chinese state-run newspaper. “Besides, I haven’t seen anyone around me or my friends getting sick from smoking yet.”

Li’s attitude, and the fact that she works for an officially-sanctioned company, Heilongjiang Tobacco Industrial, encapsulate the paradoxes China faces in dealing with a smoking epidemic. The country has over 320 million smokers, more than the population of the United States and over one-third of the world’s total, and the government has been taking small steps to try to discourage smoking, as Quartz previously reported. But with the country’s tobacco regulator and much of the tobacco industry controlled by the state—and tobacco taxes making up as much as 10% of state revenues—it’s a tough battle.

More than 85% of Chinese children aged 5 and 6 can identify one cigarette brand, and about 20% say they plan to start smoking when they grow up, according to a recent study by John Hopkins University.

Li, the tobacco tester, is an organic chemistry graduate; her job involves smoking “tobacco leaves from every production area across the country,” continuously throughout the day. She is so dedicated she was even recognized as a “model worker” by the city of Harbin. From the Global Times article:

Inhaling a deep breath of smoke and holding it in before slowly exhaling, she carefully evaluates the taste, flavor and irritant effects of each cigarette she smokes. After three long, hard draws, the cigarette is nearly done. She then sparks another until her day ends, sometimes even smoking the equivalent of more than two packs of cigarettes.

Li has made some concessions to the recent rise in concern about cigarettes’ long-term effects: Succumbing to pressure from her husband, she recently stopped smoking outside of the workplace.

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