BEIJING (Reuters) - China will ban smoking at all indoor public venues from May in an effort to shield the world's most populous nation, and its largest cigarette producer, from the harmful effects of the habit, the health ministry said.
China, which has more than 300 million smokers, will require businesses to display prominent no-smoking signs, forbid vending machines from selling cigarettes and ensure that designated outdoor smoking zones not affect pedestrian traffic, according to a ministry statement reported in Chinese media on Thursday.
Businesses should educate customers about the health hazards of smoking and workers should attempt to stop smokers from lighting up, the ministry said.
The ministry did not state specific penalties -- a sign that the new ban might not be rigorously enforced.
China, the world's largest cigarette producer, has embarked on years of half-hearted campaigns to stub out the habit in some cities. The government previously it would ban smoking in all hospitals and medical facilities from 2011.
In 2008, Beijing formally pledged to restrict smoking in most public venues in the city, including government offices and public transport, but most of these venues remain choked with smoke and non-smoking signs are routinely ignored.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, smokers who light up in certain public places only have to pay a 50 yuan ($7.625) fine, a limited deterrent in one of China's richest cities, even as state news agency Xinhua dubbed it "the nation's toughest smoking ban."
Although nearly 1.2 million Chinese people die from smoking-related diseases each year, the habit is deeply entrenched in public life.
Chinese cigarettes, among the cheapest in the world, are considered an important part of socializing. More than half of all male Chinese doctors smoke.
Less smoking could reduce smoking-related health costs, but would also hurt government revenue, as the tobacco industry provides nearly one-tenth of tax revenues. ($1 = 6.558 Chinese yuan)
Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Chris Lewis