With glasses and a dainty demeanor, the mother who wears her hair back in a ponytail looks nothing like a heavy smoker.
But the truth is that for the past 21 years, Li Hui has spent most of her days smoking - puffing back on some 30 cigarettes a day at work alone - and with no plans to break the workplace habit anytime soon.
That's because Li loves her job as a tobacco appraiser for Heilongjiang Tobacco Industrial Co. Ltd. in Harbin, Northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. Despite mounting public controversy over her work due to the now-known health affects of smoking and second-hand smoke, she says that she has no intention of quitting or changing jobs.
"It's my job, and I like it," Li told the Global Times. "Besides, I haven't seen anyone around me or my friends getting sick from smoking yet."
Still, given the rise of anti-smoking pressure from tobacco-control groups both in and out of the country these days, Li was reluctant to be interviewed, even months after she was featured on Liaoning-based news portal nen.com.cn for a Women's Day spread in March. Throughout her career, Li has won praise for her hard work and has even been recognized by the city of Harbin as a model worker.
"But I don't like to be promoted now," she said. "This isn't the right time; many people within the social environment are increasingly anti-smoking."
Nevertheless, Li, one of hundreds of tobacco appraisers in China - the largest cigarette producer and consumer in the world, with more than a quarter of the country's population or 350 million people smoking, accounting for 35 percent of the world's smokers - remains content to go to work each day, where she sits at her desk and lights up all day long.
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 Hui, right, at work. Photo: Zhao Hai
Female smoker's advantage
A graduate of organic chemistry from Heilongjiang University, Li began her career at the R&D center of Harbin Cigarette Plant in 1992, which has evolved into the unit she works at now.
Back then, a non-smoker, she was hesitant about the job, but her strong personality and stubborn streak - and refusal to bow down to any job that a man can do - prompted her to take on the work at a time when advertisements on the hazards of nicotine addiction and anti-tobacco calls were relatively non-existent in China.
With delicate senses, women have an advantage on the job, but they also need to give up their more feminine side in order to keep their edge, she said. Li is prohibited from wearing makeup or using lotions and perfumes at work as lipsticks and scents can alter the taste and aroma of cigarettes. Tobacco appraisers in general must also avoid a list of excitant foods, such as coffee and spicy hot pot, to maintain their sensitivity to cigarette flavors.
A completed cigarette often contains various tobacco leaves and spices. Before the final makeup is settled and packed into one tight, thin roll, a tobacco appraiser usually smokes several thousand experimental cigarettes in just a few months, according to a August 2012 report in Shandong-based newspaper City Sun.
At the start of the process, tobacco appraisers smoke tobacco leaves from every production area across the country. This provides Li with the palate she needs to fairly evaluate the quality of a cigarette.
Though Li has encountered several bouts of dizziness and vomiting on the job after smoking too much, to her relief, tests from her annual physical examination show that she has a clean bill of health.
But not everyone in her industry has been so lucky. A tobacco researcher surnamed Gao has felt his health waning over the years.
"I wake up with an uncomfortable feeling in my throat now and I get much more phlegm than before," Gao, whose employer was not identified, told City Sun. "Sometimes, I also feel a tightness in my chest."
And while most people believe that workers like Li must be compensated well for the health risks they take at work, according to Pan Tingting, also a female tobacco appraiser, at Hubei China Tobacco Industry Co. Ltd., their monthly salary only hovers around 5,000 yuan ($817), Hubei-based Chutian Metropolis Daily reported at the end of last year.
As anti-smoking sentiments grow as more knowledge on the dangers of smoking become available, Li and her colleagues prefer to keep a low profile, she said.
"Li was very cautious when I interviewed her," reporter Zhao Hai from nen.com.cn told the Global Times. "She didn't even let me take a photo of her smoking at work."
"But her behavior is understandable," he said. "After all, the country is getting more into supporting a smoke-free lifestyle."
In fact, Xie Jianping, 54, deputy director of Zhengzhou Tobacco Research Center, was widely criticized after being admitted to the Chinese Academy of Engineering (CAE) for his studies on low-tar cigarettes in 2011. In February this year, the CAE eventually bent to public pressure, saying that it would no longer admit tobacco researchers although it did not remove Xie.
Even Li, who pays a lot of attention to her health, always reminding herself to drink more tea, eat plenty of antioxidant fruits and take vitamins regularly, has succumbed to the demands of her family.
The woman who developed a smoking habit over the past couple of decades recently quit smoking outside of work at the request of her family, including her husband, who gave up smoking earlier this year.
Though a lot of people may disapprove of the work Li does, she says that she takes comfort in having her family to lean on, even if they have their reservations about her work and tobacco - the killer of nearly 6 million people worldwide per year, or one person every second, according to the World Health Organization.
And if that weren't enough, Li can still count on the support of her peers.
According to Sun Fushan, a researcher at Tobacco Research Institute of Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, the work that Li does is appreciated by an inner circle of experts in the tobacco industry.
"Their jobs may not be well-accepted by society, but they are vital to tobacco production and quality control. They are very much respected within the industry," Sun told the Global Times.