By Li Hui and Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China must separate the conflicting promotion and prevention roles of its state tobacco monopoly to reduce smoking-related deaths, which number as much as 1 million a year, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.
With more than 300 million smokers, China is the world's largest producer and consumer of tobacco. The government has pledged to curb smoking but its efforts have had little success.
The country's State Tobacco Monopoly Administration controls the world's single largest manufacturer of tobacco products, China National Tobacco Corporation, but also wields power over policymaking on tobacco control and enforcement.
Anti-smoking campaigners say this dynamic has long undermined their efforts to curb the habit.
WHO's director-general, Dr Margaret Chan, said she had advised China's tobacco monopoly to separate the government agency functions from the state tobacco firm, and expected the Chinese government would take her advice.
"I believe the Chinese government will implement (this change) step by step, according to their procedure," Chan, speaking in Cantonese, told a news conference concluding her official visit to China.
Chan, a bird flu expert and former Hong Kong health director, said the government had shown "commitment and understanding" of the conflict of interest stemming from the dual promotion and control roles of the state tobacco monopoly.
The government's heavy dependence on tobacco taxes also impedes anti-smoking efforts. Last year the tobacco industry contributed more than 816 billion yuan ($131.70 billion) to government coffers, an annual rise of nearly 14 percent.
Chan said about a third of the world's smokers live in China. The government has run half-hearted campaigns for years to curb the habit. Many Chinese cities ban smoking in public places, but no-smoking signs are often ignored.
Although Beijing banned smoking by government officials in public last year, the habit is viewed as an important element in socializing and Chinese cigarettes are among the cheapest in the world, at less than a dollar a pack.
Smoking and other high-risk habits, such as eating too much junk food high in salt, sugar and trans fats, can lead to significant increases in non-communicable diseases, including cancer and diabetes, and risk wiping out the economic gains China has built up in the past three decades, Chan said.
"If we don't see very strong actions to tackle tobacco and other preventable health risks, the burden of these diseases will be simply devastating," she said.
Chan said she met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, together with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, on Tuesday to discuss healthcare reforms, but tobacco control was not mentioned.
Li's younger brother, Li Keming, has served as deputy head of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration since 2003. ($1=6.1957 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Li Hui; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)