CANCUN, Mexico Smoking deaths in China, home to the world's largest smoking population, will double to two million a year by 2020 if the country does not do more to reduce tobacco use, health experts predict.
Raising the price of tobacco products might help discourage smoking, but experts noted that such a step could be tricky in China, where the government controls the industry.
China has 300 million smokers who consume a third of the world's cigarettes. Nearly 60 percent of men in China smoke, puffing an average of 15 cigarettes per day.
According to a study commissioned by the Paris-based International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, a million Chinese die each year from smoking-related illnesses, and that figure will increase to two million by 2020.
The study was being released at a conference on lung health hosted by the union on Friday in Cancun.
"It (China) will continue to suffer an enormous burden of disease from tobacco use -- and more so because the longer people smoke, the worse their disease gets, the worse the death rates get. The costs of treating these diseases, the economic impact on China, will be serious," Sinead Jones, director of tobacco control at the union, said in an interview.
The union, a nonprofit institute founded in 1920, has been working with China to help reduce Chinese tobacco use.
Smoking can cause deadly diseases such as lung and other types of cancer, emphysema, heart attack and stroke.
Seven Chinese cities -- Hangzhou, Shenyang, Tianjin, Nanchang, Shenzhen, Lanzhou and Chongqing -- will enact smoke-free laws starting in 2010 to ban smoking in healthcare facilities, government buildings, public transportation and private work places, Jones said ahead of the conference.
China's tobacco industry generated tax and profit amounting to 7.6 percent of Chinese central government revenues in 2005. The industry employs half a million people.
(Reporting by Tan Ee Lyn; Editing by Will Dunham)