By Christian Shepherd

BEIJING (Reuters) – The regulator of China’s tobacco industry, which oversees state monopoly China National Tobacco Corp, said on Monday that designated indoor smoking areas should be introduced to deter smokers as enforcing bans in all public spaces was too difficult.

Last month, China Tobacco, as the monopoly is commonly known, persuaded the eastern city of Hangzhou to amend proposed rules to ban indoor smoking in public areas by introducing designated areas for smokers, a tobacco control official told Reuters.

The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, which also shares offices and personnel with China Tobacco, denied playing any role in retarding tobacco control measures.

“We believe that as it is currently objectively difficult to implement a total ban on public smoking, establishing independent smoking areas or indoor smoking rooms in public spaces allows civilized smoking,” the regulator said in a faxed response to Reuters’ questions.

“A mature and ideal society should respect every adult’s free choice to smoke or to quit smoking,” it added.

Around 300 million of China’s 1.4 billion people smoke, and anti-smoking campaigners have accused the industry of stalling efforts to implement effective tobacco control measures.

China Tobacco sells 98 percent of all tobacco consumed in China, and is easily the world’s largest tobacco producer by volume. Its sales totaled 1.1 trillion yuan ($171.81 billion) last year, and it accounted for roughly 7 to 11 percent of China’s tax revenues.

Last month, the former head of tobacco control at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Yang Gonghuan, said during a book launch that China Tobacco attempted to thwart control measures by interfering in policy-making.

China Tobacco’s sales declined in 2015 and 2016 after China imposed new tobacco control measures including a tax hike, limits on advertising and blanket smoking bans in major cities.

In 2017, however, China Tobacco reversed the trend and sold 0.8 percent more cigarettes than the year before; in the first three months of 2018, sales rose 4.15 percent by volume, according to official data.

($1 = 6.4023 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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