China, the world’s heaviest smoking nation with 350 million smokers, has launched a high-profile campaign to clear the silver screen of the sight of thesps lighting up. 

Campaigns against smoking in cinema are common in the West, but China is an avowedly cigarette-friendly environment, and makes and consumes more tobacco than any other country. 

China’s media watchdog, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), slammed film and television producers for their indifference to non-smokers. “Inspection organs at all levels should pay more attention to the excessive use of smoking scenes in movies and teleplays,” Sarft said in a statement carried on local media. 

The State Tobacco Monopoly Administration reckons one in four of the country’s 1.3 billion people light up on a regular basis. One third of the world’s smokers live in China and about 1 million Chinese die of smoking-related illnesses every year — the World Health Organization estimates this could rise to 2.2 million annually by 2020 if smoking rates remain unchanged. 

The regulation stated that in the absence of national laws banning tobacco, there was no legal basis for banning smoking scenes in movies but there are widening calls for controls. 

“Exposure to too many smoking scenes will have an adverse impact on the audience, especially young people. The government should ban smoking in more public places to protect nonsmokers,” said Fang Jiqian, professor of public health at Guangzhou’s Sun Yat-sen U.

In August, Xu Guihua, vice president of the China Tobacco Control Assn., said the authorities would ban tobacco promotions by January 2011.

The anti-smoking lobby faces an uphill battle as smoking is a central part of Chinese culture. The ban on smoking on public transportation is regularly ignored, restaurants rarely offer a non-smoking option, and people still light up happily in hospital wards and schools. Offering cigarettes around is a crucial part of meeting and greeting, packets of cigarettes are handed out to mourners at funerals, and handing around top-brand ciggies is a staple at weddings. 

The campaign to stop on-screen smoking dovetails with plans for a smoke-free Olympics in 2008.

Under new rules, there will be no smoking allowed at all 37 Olympic sites, dozens of training facilities, the Olympic village and a phalanx of hotels, restaurants and entertainment areas associated with the competition.

Tax revenues from cigarettes pour $32 billion into state coffers, enough to pay for 15 Olympic Games, and 60 million people are employed by the industry. 

Thesp Huang Xiaoming was sharply criticized for smoking too much in the Shanghai gangster skein “The Bund,” although critics conceded he looked very convincing as a 1930s gangster. 

Earlier this year, dozens of security guards with metal pipes beat up a group of construction workers having a smoke break while working on the National Stadium, centerpiece of next year’s Olympic Games.