Question: What is the difference between 抽烟 (chōu yān) and 吸烟 (xī yān) which both pertain to smoking?

I‘ve ordinarily asked people

你抽烟吗 (nǐ chōu yān ma = "do you smoke?")

for which nobody has acted oddly about (at least, in regards to my Chinese), so I assumed it was correct, but maybe

你吸烟吗 (nǐ xī yān ma = "do you smoke?")

is synonymous.

However, I ordinarily see

禁止吸烟 (jìn zhǐ xī yān = "smoking is forbidden")

on No Smoking signs, e.g.

禁止吸烟 No smoking

which, up until recently, I thought said

禁止抽烟 (jìn zhǐ chōu yān = "smoking is forbidden" [presumably])

but this is incorrect, and it doesn't seem to be commonly used (possibly even an invalid phrase).

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Basically they have the same meaning and could be used interchangeably.

The subtle difference is, 抽烟 is used in spoken language more than 吸烟. As you said, when asking people we usually say 你抽烟吗; of course 你吸烟吗 is correct too.

On the other hand, 吸烟 is more formal and used in written language more. As you've seen, for a slogon 吸烟 is used usually; 禁止抽烟 is not wrong, but not used in general.

Looks to me like maybe 你抽烟吗 is "Do you smoke in general?" and 你吸烟吗 is "Are you smoking right now?" But I'm often wrong.

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