By Sui-Lee Wee
BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Wednesday gave its first-ever assessment of the scourge of drug abuse, saying it caused annual economic losses of 500 billion yuan ($80.54 billion) and as many as 49,000 deaths last year.
China has intensified a crackdown on drugs as the rise of a new urban class with greater disposable income has fueled a surge in the numbers of drug addicts.
In its fight on drug abuse, the government arrested a string of celebrities, including the son of Hong Kong kungfu movie star Jackie Chan. Jaycee Chan, 32, was released in February, after serving a six-month jail sentence on drug charges.
China has more than 14 million drug users, Liu Yuejin, assistant minister of public security, told a news conference.
"The direct economic losses caused by drug use in the entire country have hit 500 billion yuan annually," Liu said.
Drug abuse had killed at least 49,000 registered users by the end of 2014 and fueled a rise in crimes such as murder, abduction and rape, Liu added.
China's share of synthetic drug users eclipsed heroin users for the first time last year, according to an annual report on the drug situation.
By the end of 2014, China had about 1.2 million users of methamphetamine, up almost 41 percent from a year earlier.
Two major overseas drug sources for China are southeast Asia's "Golden Triangle," where the borders of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet, and south Asia's "Golden Crescent", which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, Liu said.
Heroin and methamphetamine are being smuggled into China's southwestern province of Yunnan and region of Guangxi, which both border Southeast Asia, Liu added.
To fight this situation, China was strengthening law enforcement cooperation with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Myanmar and other countries, he said.
"We have given them relatively large assistance with the aim of improving the capacity of these countries to combat drug crime and prevent, from the source, more drugs flowing into China," Liu said.
State media have frequently referred to drug use as a form of moral corruption damaging society. China had successfully limited the spread of drugs, particularly opium, since the Communist Party took power in 1949. But the past few years have seen a resurgence.
Drug crimes carry harsh penalties in China, including death or life imprisonment in serious cases.
($1=6.2081 Chinese yuan renminbi)
(Reporting by Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)