Perhaps one reason why so many Chinese die each year of smoking-related illnesses is because cigarettes are so cheap, and restrictions on smoking are minimal. But some recent moves by authorities could start to change that.

More than 3 million Chinese die prematurely each year from diseases that are largely preventable, according to a report released Monday by the World Health Organization. More than 1 million of those annual deaths are attributed to tobacco-smoking. Chinese and foreign experts said the number of smoking deaths could triple by 2030.

Low-grade cigarettes can be had for 3 yuan (49 cents) a pack in China, the world's largest cigarette market. China has 300 million smokers; the US has an estimated 60 million.

Serbia tops the smokers-per-capita list, and the Japanese and South Koreans also puff a bit more than the Chinese.

"The report is a dramatic wake-up call," said Bernhard Schwartlander, WHO's representative in China. "There is an urgent need for strong action now to stop millions of Chinese men and women from dying in their most productive years from diseases that can be prevented simply by changing common unhealthy lifestyle habits: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, unhealthy diet and not enough physical activity.

"China is making some progress - including the recent strong action we have seen on tobacco control in Beijing and nationally," he said. "Once these tobacco-control laws are implemented, we expect to see a big impact on the smoking rate in China."

Beijing city authorities have passed anti-smoking legislation that will ban smoking in all indoor public places, workplaces and on public transportation, effective in June.

On Jan 5, China's National Development and Reform Commission abolished price controls on leaf tobacco, allowing the market to set prices. Tobacco, though, is estimated to make up only 5 to 10 percent of the cost of a pack of cigarettes, so tobacco-price increases may not have a substantial impact on smoking.

In November, the State Council's legislative affairs office released a draft regulation for public comment that would ban smoking in indoor public places and outdoor spaces including schools and hospitals; all forms of tobacco advertising; sponsorship and promotion of tobacco products; and smoking scenes involving minors in film and on TV.

The state-owned China National Tobacco Co has a monopoly on cigarette sales, which account for nearly one-tenth of national government revenue, another obstacle for the anti-smoking movement.

China's tobacco industry generated 1.05 trillion yuan ($169 billion) in profits and taxation in 2014, up 10 percent year over year, according to data from the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration (STMA) released on Jan 15.

The industry provided 911 billion yuan ($146.6 billion) in profit, taxes and fees to the government last year, up 11.6 percent, said Ling Chengxing, head of the STMA. The monopolistic sector remains a major contributor to government revenue.

In 2013, the industry sent 816 billion yuan to the government, accounting for 6.3 percent of the country's total revenue, data showed. The STMA forecast that its contribution to government revenue will reach nearly 1 trillion yuan in 2015.

China Tobacco made 2.5 trillion cigarettes, reported Bloomberg Businessweek in a December cover story (Bloomberg Philanthropies supports anti-smoking efforts in China). By comparison, US giant Philip Morris International made 880 billion.

While Philip Morris' Marlboro Reds remain the world's most popular cigarette, seven of the top 10 brands are made in China, including Red Pagoda Mountain and BaiSha, which rank numbers 2 and 3. Businessweek reported that the company made 43 of every 100 cigarettes in the world in 2013.

A pack of cigarettes in New York City goes for about $14, according to Numbeo, a website that crowd-sources consumer prices around the globe. But a pack of Marlboro Reds can be had in China for $2.41. Most smokers in China, though, don't opt for fancy foreign brands.

Granted, New York City's cigarettes are the costliest because of a hefty component of tax not found in tobacco-producing states (a pack is only $5.14 in North Carolina).

Speaking of North Carolina, China Tobacco opened a purchasing office near Raleigh in 2013 to export American tobacco, which, when sprinkled in Chinese cigarettes, commands a higher price for them, Businessweek wrote.

It appears that China will gradually curtail smoking, despite recently indulging more in another trendy Western pleasure — fancy Cuban cigars. China raised its quota for imported cigars to 1.3 million in 2013. In that year, 285,000 of the stogies were imported from Cuba.

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