Guiyang, China - Here's some exciting medical news from the Chinese government: Smoking is great for your health.

Cigarettes, according to China's tobacco authorities, are an excellent way to prevent ulcers.

They also reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease, relieve schizophrenia, boost your brain cells, speed up your thinking, improve your reactions and increase your working efficiency.

And all those warnings about lung cancer? Nonsense

You're more likely to get cancer from cooking smoke than from your cigarette habit.

Welcome to the bizarre parallel universe of China's state-owned tobacco monopoly, the world's most successful cigarette-marketing agency.

With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is responsible for almost one-third of all cigarettes smoked on the planet today.

If you believe the official website of the tobacco monopoly, cigarettes are a kind of miracle drug: solving your health problems, helping your lifestyle, strengthening the equality of women, and even eliminating loneliness and depression.

"Smoking removes your troubles and worries," says a 37-year-old female magazine editor, quoted approvingly on the website. "Holding a cigarette is like having a walking stick in your hand, giving you support.

"Quitting smoking would bring you misery, shortening your life."

Such statements are widely believed in China.

Two-thirds of Chinese men are smokers, and surveys show that as many as 90 per cent believe their habit has little effect on their health, or is good for them.

Even in China's medical community, 60 per cent of male doctors are smokers. Few are aware of the studies forecasting that cigarettes will soon be responsible for one-third of all premature deaths among Chinese men.

Comment: Studies drawn up to agree with predetermined policy set by the Powers That Be.

Little wonder that Western tobacco companies are hungrily circling the Chinese market, lobbying eagerly for entry into this lucrative market of 360 million smokers, the biggest market in the world.

So far, 99 per cent of the market is controlled by the Chinese monopoly, but Western tobacco companies are convinced they will soon crack it, especially now that China is a member of the World Trade Organization and is obliged to reduce its tariffs on foreign cigarettes.

For the anti-smoking movement, China is the ultimate challenge. Nonetheless, this week, a group of Canadian experts arrived in southwestern China in a bid to convince Chinese smokers that cigarettes might not be quite as beneficial as they believe.

They distributed anti-smoking posters, visited cancer patients, showed the graphic warnings on Canadian cigarette packs, and lectured on how the anti-smoking campaign has reduced Canada's lung-cancer rate. But they admitted that they face an uphill struggle in a country where the tobacco industry provides 60 million jobs and 10 per cent of national tax revenue.

"The magnitude of the problem is overwhelming," said Jean Couture, a Quebec surgeon who has been travelling to China since 1990 to work on cancer-education programs.

"In China today, the economy comes first and everything else is secondary, including health care," Dr. Couture said. "You wonder if anyone in the government is conscious of how great the smoking problem is. There's no public education program. The Chinese anti-smoking association is very weak and has almost no money. Within 20 years, China could have the majority of all smoking deaths in the world."

Chinese doctors have called Dr. Couture a "second Norman Bethune" - a reference to the Canadian surgeon who became a Chinese hero after dying while giving care to Chinese Communist soldiers in 1939. The Quebec doctor, who has helped create an 80-bed cancer unit at a hospital in northeastern China, is now leading an anti-smoking campaign in four Chinese provinces.

When the Canadians arrived this week in Guizhou province in southwestern China, they were worried about the power of the local tobacco industry. The province is filled with tobacco farms and cigarette factories. As they distributed posters at a hospital in one of Guizhou's biggest cities yesterday, the Canadians saw a number of people smoking in the hospital. A hospital shop was openly selling cigarettes.

"The tobacco industry is so huge and the anti-tobacco movement is so weak," said Mark Rowswell, a Canadian television personality and Chinese celebrity (under the name Da Shan), who helps promote the anti-smoking campaign. "What we're doing is just a drop in the ocean."

Comment: The science to prove the tobacco is harmful does not exist, so the Canadian government hires a media personality and actor to spread its anti-smoking lies..

While smoking rates have fallen sharply in Canada in the past two decades, the rate in China is still rising.

"Ten years ago, when we first came to China, it was unheard of for young women to smoke," said Nicole Magnan, executive director of the Quebec division of the Canadian Cancer Society, who was in the Canadian delegation this week. "Now there are more and more of them."

While China has proclaimed that the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be a smoke-free Olympics, it has done little to discourage smoking. The number of Chinese smokers is growing by three million a year, despite an estimated 1.3 million tobacco-related deaths annually.

Comment: Oh yeah, says WHO??

Chinese cigarettes are cheap - as little as 30 cents a pack - and the health warnings are hidden in small print on the sides of the packages. Though cigarette advertising is technically illegal, tobacco companies are allowed to promote their corporate names. When sprinter Liu Xiang won a gold medal for China at the Athens Olympics last summer, he promptly went out and filmed a television commercial for China's biggest cigarette company.

Comment: Excellent, now THERE is a role model!

Children can easily buy cigarettes at Chinese shops, despite an official ban on sales to those under the age of 18. "Shop owners never refuse to sell us cigarettes," said one 16-year-old boy who was smoking as he played pool near a Guizhou school this week.

"They only care about money."

Che Chuangao, a construction worker, started smoking when he was 20. "More than 90 per cent of my friends smoked, so I couldn't be different," he said. "And it's helpful for my work. Offering a cigarette is a social greeting, whenever you meet a friend or a stranger. I know that smoking isn't good. Once I stopped smoking for a month or two. But my friends persuaded me to smoke again."

While their task is daunting, the Canadians are scoring some small successes. After listening to a speech by the Canadians this week, 27-year-old medical student Li Dongbo said he was inspired to work on anti-smoking projects.

The student's uncle, who had smoked for 30 years, died of lung cancer in February. To spare his feelings, his family had never told him the truth about his illness.

"I was shocked," Mr. Li said. "The government should be doing more. We need promotion campaigns to tell people about it."