• A Chinese laborer smokes a cigarette at a local market on Sept. 26, 2014 in Beijing, China.

A Chinese laborer smokes a cigarette at a local market on Sept. 26, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo : Getty Images)

China has reversed its stance on a proposed national smoke-free law, saying it now plans to grant exemptions to restaurants, bars, hotels and airports.

Under the latest version of the Ordinance on Smoking Control in Public Spaces, restaurants, bars, hotels and airports will be allowed to set aside smoking areas, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday citing insider sources.

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The changes are a major departure from the version put up for public consultation in Nov. 2014, which proposed a ban on smoking in all indoor and select outdoor public spaces.

Bernhard Schwartlander, the World Health Organization's (WHO) representative in China, said the WHO was worried by the changes.

"You see again and again in the world such exceptions built in the law and it doesn't do much to protect the health of the people from second-hand smoke," Schwartlander said. "A law that has so many exceptions can't be enforced. We have learned the best law is one that is 100 percent smoke-free. That is very simple and clear."

With an estimated 315 million smokers in the mainland, China is the biggest producer and consumer of tobacco products. And roughly 700 million people are routinely exposed to second-hand smoke, said the WHO.

Tobacco regulation in China has proven to be difficult as the industry is state-owned and lucrative, generating more than 1.09 trillion yuan in profit and tax revenue for 2015 alone.

Some cities already have strict laws banning smoking in all indoor public areas and "we'd rather have no law at all than have a national law that says it is OK to smoke indoors," the Post reported, citing a national health official.

Eighteen mainland cities have already implemented municipal smoking bans since 2008, with Beijing's being the strongest. The law, introduced in the capital in June the previous year, complies fully with the WHO's call for a complete ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces, public transport, indoor public areas and other public places.

A year after it went into effect, smoking in indoor public areas in Beijing fell from 23.1 percent to just 6.7 percent, and smoking in restaurants dropped from 40.3 percent to 14.8 percent, said Fang Laiying, director of the Beijing Health and Family Planning Commission.