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Smoking is causing a catastrophic epidemic that will kill 3 million Chinese men each year by the middle of the next century, researchers predicted on Thursday.

A third of all young Chinese men will die from the effects of tobacco, many before the age of 70, yet two-thirds of the people in the world's most populous nation think smoking causes either little or no harm.

The alarming statistics are from the world's largest ever study of tobacco deaths. It paints a grim picture of what will happen in China if current smoking patterns continue.

"The truth is a third of all the young men in China will eventually be killed by smoking," Richard Peto, a co-author of the study, told Reuters.

The professor of medical statistics at Oxford University and an expert on the hazards of smoking said the figures, which alarmed even him, should be impossible to ignore.

"To the government, to the medical profession and to the journalists in China these numbers may not seem real and yet they are real. You've got 300 million smokers there, and of the young ones half of them are going to be killed by the habit."

At a news conference to present the results of the research Dr. Alan Lopez, of the World Health Organization, said the only way to stop the epidemic is for adults to break the habit.

"In the next 50 years tobacco will kill about 90 million to 100 million unless adults are convinced to stop smoking," he said.

The painstaking research that took eight years to complete and compile showed that two-thirds of Chinese men become smokers before the age of 25, but only 1 percent of women take up the habit.

A decrease in the number of female smokers was the only good news in the statistics.

The researchers predicted tobacco will kill at least 100 million of the over 300 million males now under 30. Half of these deaths will be in middle age and half in old age.

The main way smoking kills in China is by making diseases that are already prevalent even more common. Male smokers aged 35-69 had 51 percent more cancer deaths, 31 percent more respiratory and 15 percent vascular deaths than non-smokers.

The statistics, published in the latest issue of The British Medical Journal, make somber reading, but Peto said the figures could be reduced, and it is never too late for adults to stop smoking.

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