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BEIJING (Reuters) - China aims to impose a nationwide ban on smoking in public places this year, as authorities move to stamp out a widespread practice that has taken a severe toll on citizens' health.
China, home to some 300 million smokers, is the world's largest consumer of tobacco, and smoking is a ubiquitous part of social life, particularly for men.
Tougher regulation of smoking is a priority this year, officials from the National Health and Family Planning Commission said this week, adding that the agency was pushing lawmakers to toughen laws on tobacco use.
"Compared to the damage to health that smoking causes, tobacco's economic benefits are trivial," Mao Qun'an, a spokesman for the commission, told a news conference on Tuesday.
The drumbeat to reduce tobacco use has grown steadily louder in the past few years, but experts say China's powerful tobacco industry, which has resisted raising cigarette prices and use of health warnings on cigarette packs, has been a tough opponent.
The nationwide smoking ban has long been in the works. Several cities have banned smoking in public places, but enforcement has been lax.
Beijing pledged in 2008 to prohibit smoking in most public venues, including government offices, but no-smoking signs are frequently ignored.
Steps recommended by the commission range from beefing up education on the dangers of tobacco to banning smoking in schools and hospitals.
An official in the tobacco control office of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention said in December that lawmakers would consider the nationwide ban on smoking in public places this year.
The commission's statement follows a government circular urging Communist Party cadres and government officials not to light up in schools, workplaces, stadiums, and on public transport, among other places, so as to set a positive example.
Reporting by Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Clarence Fernandez