BEIJING (AP) - China is tightening smoking regulations to ban lighting up in any indoor public spaces in seven provincial capitals, the latest sign of rising health awareness in the world's largest tobacco-consuming nation.
The success of the effort may provide the best indicator yet as to whether broad efforts to restrict tobacco use can overcome stiff resistance from retailers and some local governments, which profit
significantly from tobacco taxes.
Smoking is a huge business in China: 2 trillion cigarettes are sold in the country every year. The country accounts for more than one-quarter of the world's 1.3 billion smokers, with about 60 percent of Chinese men and 3 percent of women indulging in the habit.
China pledged to ban indoor smoking in public places four years ago under a U.N. treaty, but local laws and regulations have not been changed sufficiently for the measure to be properly enforced.
"Our aim is to make 100 percent of the environment in indoor public places and workplaces smoke-free in these seven cities," Qu Yan, an official with the government's Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told The Associated Press on Monday.
Cities targeted include some of China's biggest commercial centers - such as Tianjin on the northern coast and the megacity of Chongqing in the southwest - where smoking and breathing in secondhand smoke add to health threats from traffic, industrial waste, and polluted air and water.
Qu said that goal will require enacting or amending local smoking regulations. The CDC hopes to have those changes in place by the end of 2011, she said.
Gan Quan, head of anti-smoking programs for the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, said it was unclear how effective the move would be.
"This involves efforts from a lot of different directions, so it's very hard to say how confident we are about the program's success," Gan said.
Local governments that rely on the income from cigarette sales sometimes push consumption in spite of a partial ban on tobacco advertising.
A rural county in central Hubei province last year sparked a public outcry after pushing the sale of more than 230,000 packs of locally produced cigarettes a year to boost tax revenues. The move was called off in the face of public criticism.
Taxes from tobacco sales topped 416 billion yuan ($61 billion) last year, up 26.2 percent from 2008, according to a report issued last week by the state tobacco industry regulator. Interest on government loans to the industry added another 97 billion yuan ($14 billion).
"The big increase in tax income from the tobacco industry is actively contributing to the security of government finances," a spokesman for the regulator, Zhang Xiulian, was quoted as saying on its Web site.
The revenue boost is a direct result of the hiking of taxes on the most expensive brands of cigarettes last year. Anti-smoking groups had at first welcomed the move as raising the cost of smoking, a factor that often lowers demand.
Instead, the government required tobacco companies to absorb the higher tax without raising prices. Meanwhile, taxes on the cheapest, most popular brands - costing from five to seven yuan (75 cents to $1) - actually fell.
Despite such resistance, there are signs the public is eager for stronger limits on the tobacco industry, said Sarah England, the World Health Organization's Tobacco-Free Initiative officer in China.
As one example, she cited public criticism that forced organizers of last year's National Games sports meet to pull tobacco advertising from venues.
"I think we're seeing some movement, though it's early days yet," England said.