China bans officials from smoking in public

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BEIJING (AP) — China, which has the world's largest number of smokers, is making another effort at limiting smoking by banning officials from lighting up in public. This time, the edict is coming from the highest levels of the ruling Communist Party and government.

Until Sunday's notice from the State Council, or China's Cabinet, and the party's central committee, efforts to curb smoking in public places were largely limited to city and other local-level measures. The health ministry pushed out guidelines banning smoking in venues including hotels and restaurants in 2011, but these were criticized as having no clear punishments or details on how such bans would be enforced.

The new rules, which campaigners hope will help bring about a nationwide law banning smoking in public places, call on officials to lead by example by stubbing out their cigarettes. Officials are not allowed to smoke in schools, hospitals, sports venues, on public transport or any other places where smoking is banned, or to smoke or offer cigarettes when performing official duties, the official Xinhua News said. They also cannot use public funds to buy cigarettes, and within Communist Party or government offices tobacco products cannot be sold nor adverts displayed.

"This is likely a major breakthrough. For the first time, very high-level attention and support is being given to anti-tobacco efforts," said Ray Yip, head of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's China program. The foundation has been working on smoking cessation campaigns in the country.

"This likely will lead to meaningful legislation and enforcement related to smoking," Yip said.

China, with a population of 1.35 billion, has more than 300 million smokers.

Experts say huge revenues from the state-owned tobacco monopoly have hindered anti-smoking measures. An order banning party officials from smoking indoors, handed down from the highest levels of power, could help to reduce its influence.

Smoking, which is linked to an average annual death toll of 1.4 million people in China in recent years, is one of the greatest health threats the country faces, government statistics show. The annual number of cigarettes sold in the country increased by 50 percent to 2.52 trillion in 2012 compared with 10 years earlier, according to the Chinese Association on Tobacco Control, which is overseen by health authorities.

"Smoking remains a relatively universal phenomenon in public venues. Some officials smoke in public places, which has not only jeopardized the environment and public health, but tarnished the image of party and government offices and leaders and has a negative influence," the circular read, according to Xinhua.

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