BEIJING (Reuters) - China has banned smoking in schools, state media reported on Wednesday, the latest step in a government drive to kick the country's pervasive tobacco habit.
Despite years of campaigning by health activists, China is the world's largest consumer of cigarettes and smokers can be spotted everywhere, even in schools and hospitals.
But with a huge public health burden looming ever larger, China has recently intensified efforts to stamp out smoking.
The State Council, or cabinet, is aiming for a nationwide ban on smoking in public places this year, and several cities have already introduced anti-smoking regulations.
But critics say authorities only enforce bans sporadically, if at all, and it is common to see people puffing away in front of no smoking signs.
The latest ban, imposed by the Ministry of Education, covers kindergartens, elementary and middle schools, and vocational schools. Universities must set up smoking areas and forbid lighting up in academic buildings.
Anti-tobacco efforts have been hampered by the country's powerful tobacco monopoly, health campaigners say, which pays hundreds of billions of yuan in taxes every year.
Critics say another problem is that it is not clear who is responsible for punishing violators of cigarette bans, meaning officials often just turn a blind eye.
Schools can no longer seek sponsorship from cigarette brands or post tobacco advertisements on campus, the ministry said in a notice.
School principals must enforce the ban by installing smoke alarms or surveillance cameras to spot offenders. School canteens must also stop selling tobacco.
Schools that do not crack down properly will be punished, the ministry said.
As part of the battle against smoking, the government had earlier urged Communist Party cadres and government officials to stop smoking in schools, workplaces, stadiums, and on public transport and elsewhere to set a good example.
(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan; Editing by Robert Birsel)