Tobacco consumption is hitting alarming rates in China.  World Health officials estimate that one third of the population under the age of 29 is likely to die from tobacco-related illnesses.  At the same time, officials in the communist government have publicly said the country cannot afford to stop smoking.  China is the world's largest producer and consumer of tobacco products. VOA's Luis Ramirez has more from Beijing.

A Chinese bride follows a longstanding tradition, going from table to table offering her guests cigarettes -- an important sign of hospitality. Here, like at many other weddings in China, cigarettes are handed out like candy. 

Members of this generation, unlike their parents, have money to buy them and smoking rates among young people are rising.

Twenty-three-year-old university student Wei Peng has been chain smoking since he was 16. "When I first started to smoke, I did it out of curiosity. Then, it made me feel like I was growing up, and made me feel like a man.  It gradually became a habit."

Wei is among the millions in China at risk of dying of tobacco-related diseases. The World Health Organization warns these may kill a third of all Chinese men now under the age of 29. 

Smoking is an old and deadly tradition that critics say China is being very slow to phase out. 

Smokers waiting for a lung test at a Beijing hospital are hoping not to become statistics.  Doctor Xiao Dan works to help people quit smoking. He says many lung cancer patients are surprised to learn about the link to smoking.

"Many of them know that smoking is not good, but they do not know exactly how bad it could be for their health.  They do not know how smoking affects their health and their lives. They have no understanding," he says.

The Chinese government says it wants to curb smoking, but faces a tough dilemma.  It is also the main tobacco producer, with state-owned companies drawing billions in revenues from selling cigarettes to China's 350 million smokers.

State-owned tobacco giants, like the Hongta group, generate thousands of jobs and fund much-needed infrastructure projects in impoverished regions like Yunnan province. Some Communist leaders have openly said stopping smoking would hurt revenues and could even destabilize the country.

Professor Mao Zhengzhong hopes to change that thinking. He co-authored a study showing that curbing tobacco use by raising taxes on cigarettes would not threaten revenues.  "We have to offer them more proof to allay their concerns about falling revenues if taxes on tobacco go up."

China is taking some steps by ratifying the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. It bans tobacco advertising, smoking in some public places, and requires large printed warnings on cigarette packs.

The WHO representative in China, Dr. Henk Bekedam, calls ratification an important step. "That's very encouraging, but it's just like with all the laws. A law on its own is not enough.  It's, at the end of the day, about changing behavior."

Smoking-related illnesses are killing more than one million Chinese each year and experts believe that could more than double by 2020.