The World Health Organisation has called for stringent regulations on smoking in public places. Given the scale of danger awaiting the community from smokers, all member countries should ban smoking at indoor workplaces and in public buildings.
'The evidence is clear. There is no safe level of exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke,' said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization. China has come in for special mention. It needs comprehensive laws to reduce the number of smokers or the habit could end up killing 2.2 million Chinese a year by 2020, WHO's representative for the country Henk Bekedam said.
Tobacco use is the world's leading cause of preventable death, accounting for 10 percent of adult fatalities, according to WHO. It is responsible for 5.4 million deaths each year, a figure that is expected to rise to 8.3 million by 2030, the agency says.
Increasing numbers of nonsmokers will also die unless governments take action, WHO said in its 50-page report. It said governments of both rich and poor countries should declare all public indoor places smoke-free, by passing laws and actively enforcing measures to ensure that 'everyone has a right to breathe clean air, free from tobacco smoke.'
At least 200,000 workers die each year because of exposure to smoke at their offices and factories, according to the U.N. labor agency. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 3,000 deaths from lung cancer each year occur among nonsmoking Americans.
'This is not about shaming the smoker. This is not even about banning smoking,' said Dr. Armando Peruga, who heads WHO's anti-tobacco campaign. 'This is about society taking decisions about where to smoke and where not to smoke.'
He cited Ireland and Uruguay as governments that have successfully tackled smoking by creating and enforcing smoke-free environments. Legislation of the kind has proved popular among both smokers and nonsmokers, according to WHO, whose policy recommendations set broad goals for its 193 member states but are not legally binding.
As for China, it has become the focus of international health concern as it is seen as a nation of the world's most enthusiastic smokers, with a growing market of about 320 million dollars making it a magnet for multinationals.
Chinese cigarettes are also among the cheapest in the world and a packet can cost as little as $0.08. 'The death toll from diseases associated with tobacco is around one million Chinese annually, a figure that is expected to increase to 2.2 million per year by 2020 if smoking rates remain unchanged,' the WHO's China representative Henk Bekedam said in a statement.
Although China in 2005 ratified the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control -- which aims to reduce tobacco consumption, including through a ban on advertising and promotion -- stronger laws are needed, Bekedam said. 'Ultimately, China needs to enact national laws that set the standard for tobacco control for the entire country and are clear, strong and enforceable,' he said. 'Now China needs to implement comprehensive measures that will change people's behaviour and lead to fewer people smoking.'
China's Ministry of Health this week said about 100,000 Chinese die annually from diseases associated with passive smoking, while more than half a billion suffer from the smoke exhaled from cigarettes.
It said in a report that only 35 percent of respondents to its survey were aware of the dangers of passive smoking, and suggested the government ban smoking in public places.
'Our country still does not have a dedicated law banning smoking in public places,' the report said. 'Passing a law banning smoking in public places is an effective way to cut tobacco use.' The government has banned smoking on public transport, but it is still allowed in many public places, such as restaurants, and it is not uncommon to see people smoking even in hospitals.
A senior official from China's State Tobacco Monopoly warned earlier this year that smoking was so pervasive in China that efforts to curb it would upset social stability -- something Bekedam acknowledged.
'Fighting tobacco is not easy, especially when there is a state monopoly on tobacco production,' he said, ahead of Thursday's World No Tobacco Day.
'There will always be huge opposition to tobacco control in China. Political commitment is needed across every element of the Chinese Government,' Bekedam added. He suggested raising tobacco taxes and banning advertising. 'Increasing tobacco taxes is a clear win-win situation for China. Despite a fall in the number of people smoking, higher taxes mean the government's revenue will rise and there will be a fall in smoking-related health costs, diseases and deaths,' he said.