The head of the World Health Organisation has urged the government to strengthen tobacco control to save huge numbers of lives and to ensure the country has a healthy workforce to continue its development.
Margaret Chan said during a trip to Beijing there was a real risk that the economic achievements of the past three decades on the mainland could be cancelled out by the huge burden of coping with diseases linked to smoking.
"Every year more than one million people die as a result of tobacco-related illness. This is a terrible statistic," she said.
"China needs to take urgent action to strengthen its tobacco control policies to turn these kinds of terrible statistics around."
Chan met with leaders including Premier Li Keqiang , Health Minister Li Bin and the deputy chairman of the National People's Congress Chen Zhu during her visit.
She said she told leaders that tobacco-related illnesses such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes would have a devastating impact on the mainland and its workforce.
"You can't walk properly, you will be so short of breath that you won't be able to work," she said
"That means you won't have the productivity of a healthy workforce. You do not have what I call a healthy, educated workforce to sustain this economic development. The devastation of tobacco smoking outweighs any revenue that you can imagine. It's false economy."
More than 80 per cent of deaths on the mainland are related to non-communicable diseases linked to lifestyle, including smoking and poor diet. The global average is 63 per cent.
Cases of tobacco-related diseases will rise to three million per year by 2050 and the World Health Organisation wants to ensure urgent action is taken to strengthen tobacco control, Chan told reporters.
The government has ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, but failed to meet a deadline to ban smoking in public areas.
The convention also requires signatories to take measures including banning tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, putting graphic warnings on cigarette packages and charging higher tax on tobacco products.
"These are useful tools and proven to work. They just need to be implemented," said Chan.
Anti-smoking campaigners say one major problem is that the organisation in charge of implementing the convention on the mainland is the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which also oversees the industry and there is a conflict of interest.
Chan said she was promised by leaders that this problem would be addressed over time.
China is the world's largest cigarette manufacturer and consumer, with more than 300 million smokers, according to national statistics.
Some 740 million people, including 180 million children, are affected by passive smoking.