The World Health Organisation has called for the urgent introduction of tobacco controls on the mainland to curb non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the biggest cause of deaths in China.
NCDs - chronic problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and lung disease - account for 83 per cent of deaths on the mainland and smoking is a major risk factor.
The WHO says tobacco is responsible for one million deaths on the mainland every year and a quarter of the men who die from tobacco-related NCDs are younger than 60.
"This has major economic implications for an ageing society such as China," Michael O'Leary, WHO's representative in China, said yesterday. "But unfortunately the tobacco epidemic is getting worse, not better and that deserves urgent attention now."
Dr Robert Beaglehole, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand, said: "The important issue here is with the ageing population there will be a lot of people with NCDs, so the cost of treatment is a big burden. It can drag the family into poverty.
"Another challenge is people are often living with not one but multiple NCDs."
Last month, the WHO released nine global voluntary targets for the prevention and control of NCDs, such as combating premature mortality from NCDs, alcohol and tobacco use.
The target of a 30 per cent reduction in tobacco use translates into a decrease in the mainland's adult smoking rate to 19.6 per cent - 235 million smokers - from 28 per cent by 2025.
The WHO says that such a reduction is a realistic possibility given the right policies.
China ratified the WHO Framework Convention of Tobacco Control in 2005 but missed the 2009 deadline to implement a complete ban on smoking in public places.
Dr Douglas Bettcher, director of the WHO's Tobacco Free Initiative, said there had been progress, such as a partial advertising ban but problems remained.
He said: "The price and taxing of tobacco are very low, the advertising ban is not complete and the smoking ban in the plan is good, but the operational side is not very clear."
Activists have long criticised the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which runs China National Tobacco Corporation, the world's biggest cigarette producer, for allowing the industry to use the government's authority to promote production of tobacco and hinder control policies and laws.
But Bettcher said the mainland could implement effective tobacco controls as long as it had a firewall between the production and regulatory sides.