BEIJING, Reuters

China’s stability could be threatened if the government tried to curb smoking, a senior official said on Wednesday at a discussion of the annual meeting of parliament.

“Smoking harms people’s health, but restraining smoking threatens social stability,” said Zhang Baozhen, deputy chief of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration.

“Smokers rioted when the former Soviet Union collapsed because they could not get any cigarettes… The principle applies in China as well,” Zhang said, responding to proposals from some members of China’s parliamentary advisory body to curtail the smoking industry.

Partial smoking bans are already in effect in many places around the world, including Hong Kong, which returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, several American states and parts of Europe.

“As a developing country, China still needs the tobacco industry,” Zhang said.

China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of cigarettes, with nearly 2 trillion sticks consumed a year, bans its drivers from smoking, but the law is routinely ignored.

The World Health Organization estimates that smoking kills 1.2 million people a year in China.

China’s ruling Communist Party has put strong emphasis on maintaining social stability as protests due to corruption, land grabs, environmental disasters and a growing gap between rich and poor increase.

“With the development of modern technology, we can reduce the harm of smoking by lowering the toxic ingredients in cigarettes,” the official said.