BEIJING - Smoking has no place at the Olympic Games. But Beijing Mayor Wang Qishan is a reluctant antismoking crusader. After all, he's a smoker.
He has company at the Olympic Village, where the chief of the Games' organizing committee also can sometimes be seen through a haze of cigarette smoke.
An astonishing number of China's cabinet members and sports officials are among the 350 million Chinese whose cigarette habits support a state industry that is generating more taxes in China than any other industry.
Smoking is common even at the Health Ministry. Deputy Minister Gao Qiang smokes heavily, and surveys show that more than 50 percent of China's male doctors and health workers smoke.
"They are under high pressure, stress, so they smoke to get relief," said Zhi Xiuyi, the nonsmoking chief of the lung cancer center at Capital Medical University hospital.
Under growing criticism from the World Health Organization and other international bodies, China is slowly combating tobacco usage.
It has agreed to put warning labels on cigarette packs by 2009 and prohibit tobacco-related advertising and promotion by 2011. Last month, Beijing banned smoking in the city's 66,000 taxis.
But the state tobacco monopoly keeps increasing production. It's on course to crank out more than two trillion cigarettes this year. Smokers snap up packs of White Sand, Red Pagoda, Yellow Mountain, and 400 other national brands, adding to state coffers. The tobacco industry contributes $31 billion a year in taxes.
In March, the deputy chief of the state tobacco monopoly warned antismoking campaigners not to press too hard.
"We take very seriously the health dangers of smoking, but not having cigarettes also impacts stability," Zhang Baozen, deputy chief of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration, told state television.
Cigarette taxes provide Beijing with steady revenue. According to the World Bank, 8 percent of China's central revenues come from taxes on cigarettes, compared with 3 percent in Britain, 1.8 percent in India, and 0.4 percent in the United States.
Yet there are signs that the central government is embracing limited antismoking efforts, wary of being out of step with much of the rest of the world.
Last year, Beijing ratified a WHO antismoking convention that commits it to curb smoking in public places, such as schools and buses, and further limit cigarette advertising.
Global health advocates are urging China to reexamine the economic burden of health issues tied to smoking.
The WHO says that one million Chinese die every year from diseases related to smoking and that the toll will climb to 2.2 million fatalities a year by 2020 if current rates continue. It says China faces $5 billion a year in smoking-related health-care costs, part of what it calls a "massive tobacco burden."
Perhaps even more surprising, the WHO says that one-third of all Chinese men below the age of 30 today eventually will die of smoking-related disorders.
Part of the reason is that Chinese are smoking at a younger age and smoking more per day. In 1984, the average age when people began to smoke was 22.4 years. By 2006, it was 19.7.
As incomes rise, Chinese smoke more often. Average daily consumption has risen from four cigarettes in 1972 to 10 cigarettes in 1992 and to about 15 today.
Smoking is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture - male culture, that is.
In China, 63 percent of men smoke, while only 3 percent of women do. At weddings, the bride normally circles the reception hall, offering cigarettes to each man, a rite said to augur well for her eventual childbearing. Cigarettes are also handed out at funerals. Between courses at banquets, male diners frequently pause for a smoke.
China's soaring economy is precisely why some antismoking activists see light ahead. They say the state-owned cigarette companies are becoming a smaller portion of total tax revenue for the government, making measures to contain smoking more feasible.
In a move that pleased antismoking activists, China last year ratified the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires it to stiffen bans on advertising and promotion. As a result, Beijing told the television industry to cut down on unnecessary smoking scenes and pledged that the 2008 Beijing Summer Games would be smoke-free.