By Megha Rajagopalan and Joseph Campbell
BEIJING, June 1 (Reuters) - China's capital city was sprinkled with red-uniformed volunteers, propaganda banners and no-smoking signs on Monday as Beijing unrolled ambitious new curbs on a popular habit that has taken a serious toll on the country's health.
Health activists have pushed for years for stronger restrictions on smoking in China, the world's largest tobacco consumer, which is considering further anti-smoking curbs nationwide.
Under the new rules, anyone in China's capital who violates the ban, which includes smoking in restaurants, hotels, schools and hospitals as well as in certain outdoor public places, must pay a 200 yuan ($32.25) fine. That is 20 times the current, albeit seldom enforced, penalty.
Anyone who breaks the law three times will also be named and shamed on a government website. And businesses can be fined up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600) for failing to stub out smoking on their premises.
In this Sunday, May 31, 2015 photo, square dance performers chat near anti-smoking banners displayed on the iconic Bird's Nest National Stadium on World No Tobacco Day in Beijing. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
Smoking is a major health crisis in China, where more than 300 million smokers have made cigarettes part of the social fabric, and millions more are exposed to secondhand smoke. More than half of Chinese smokers buy cigarettes at less than five yuan (80 U.S. cents) a pack.
At an event to promote the ban on Sunday, Beijing authorities draped its iconic Bird's Nest Stadium, built for the 2008 Olympics, with giant banners bearing a no smoking sign.
Dozens of middle-aged women volunteers performed a choreographed dance to promote the campaign, including three hand-signals the government recommends locals use to encourage others not to smoke. One of the signals is a mock-cough, and another depicts a time-out sign with one palm over the other.
On Monday, enforcement of the bans appeared spotty in local restaurants and public places. Some bore no smoking signs explaining the new rules.
"I think this time it's really big, and it will definitely be very serious," said Xu Jingyuan, a 25-year-old saleswoman who was told by the waiter of a neighborhood eatery that she had to smoke outside. "They've already started out quite strictly with the policy this time."
Other restaurants were allowing smokers to light up only at outdoor tables.
One security guard near a popular public square in the city's southwest said he and his colleagues had received instructions to tell smokers to leave the area.
"The ban starts today, but we're giving some leeway early in the week," said the guard, surnamed Zhang. "Just for today, go ahead and smoke."
Workers set up the stage for a ceremony to launch new anti-smoking measures in the Chinese capital on World No Tobacco Day in Beijing, Sunday, May 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
(Reporting By Megha Rajagopalan and Joseph Campbell)