Hard-Smoking Russians Welcome Efforts to Make Them Stop

Russians are among the heaviest smokers on the planet. Oddly, they’re also quite amenable to the efforts of two notable non-smokers -- President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev -- to make them stop.

On Feb. 25, Putin signed into effect a tough anti-tobacco law that phases out smoking in most public areas by the summer of 2014. The measure is a big move in a country where, according to the 2013 OECD Factbook, 55 percent of men and 16 percent of women smoke every day, compared with only 17 percent and 13 percent in the United States.

Surprisingly, Russians cheered the smoking ban. They seem to recognize that their addiction is bad for them and for others. According to a February poll by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center, 79 percent of Russians support a total ban on tobacco advertising and sponsorship, and 76 percent are in favor of a smoking ban in all public areas.

When neighboring Ukraine, with similar nicotine dependency statistics, passed an even tougher law last year, the polls also showed overwhelming approval, with 75 percent of Ukrainians backing the restrictive measures.

So are Russia and Ukraine now in the vanguard of tobacco control? Not quite. In both countries, the new legislation does much more to make life difficult for people who smoke than to help them quit. And in both countries, powerful tobacco lobbies managed to avoid their worst nightmare: a state-decreed minimum price of a pack of cigarettes, which now costs an average of $1.

Last fall, when the Russian anti-smoking bill was proposed in parliament, Medvedev recorded an impassioned speech on the evils of tobacco. In the spirit of xenophobic Kremlin rhetoric, the prime minister blamed “four big foreign companies that entered this market in the early 1990s” for the prevalence of smoking in Russia, saying the weak government of that era had underestimated the effect of their investments. He did not have to name the four companies: The Russian market is dominated by Japan Tobacco International, Philip Morris International, British American Tobacco and Imperial Tobacco Group. They have for years fought all efforts to restrict smoking in Russia, using sophisticated lobbying methods honed in the U.S. and Europe.

Despite Medvedev’s tough talk, the tobacco companies managed to hold on to some positions. Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov, now a legislator who heads charities that receive significant donations from tobacco companies, helped torpedo a proposed ban on tobacco financing for charity projects. Another parliament member, Sergei Shtogrin, whose charitable foundation also benefited from tobacco-company generosity, introduced amendments killing the idea of a minimum retail price on cigarettes.

The bill’s “teeth have been pulled” by the tobacco lobbyists, Dmitri Yanin, head of the powerful consumer rights organization CONFOP, wrote on Slon.ru.

That said, tobacco companies did give up a lot of ground. They won’t be able to sponsor festivals and sporting events, and their products won’t be openly sold in stores -- only price lists will be displayed. Also, the smoking bans in public areas in Russia are likely to be at least as strictly enforced as they are in Ukraine. There, anti-smoking activists recently surveyed 1,133 restaurants and found that 93 percent had indeed banned smoking, according to the LigaBusinessInform news agency. Only 7 percent, mostly bars, decided to brave fines but keep the nicotine-loving clientele.

Another peculiarity of the Russian anti-tobacco law is the ban on cigarette sales in street kiosks: Only larger stores will be allowed to stock tobacco products. This is widely considered to benefit big supermarket chains, which have been losing revenue recently because of another restrictive law banning the sale of alcohol after 9 p.m.

How much the measures will actually hurt cigarette sales remains an open question. U.S. and EU experience doesn’t provide a clear answer, because legislation there was more comprehensive. It raised taxation to make smoking prohibitively expensive, and in the U.K. the government provided free tobacco replacement therapy under its national health insurance program. In Russia and Ukraine, cigarettes are still cheap enough not to make a noticeable dent in smokers’ incomes, and treating addiction is entirely the users’ own problem.

“Fighting smokers instead of fighting diseases fits in well with the general trend of Russian propaganda,” wrote blogger Anton Nosik, a doctor by training. “Fighting nicotine dependency is hard, responsible work, unlike rubber-stamping laws against smokers.”

Putin has always seen demographics as a major measure of his success as head of state. Last year, he credited himself with breaking the 20-year trend of negative natural population growth in Russia. He appears to believe smoking bans are a sufficient next step in the battle for increased life expectancy. Luckily for him, so do the majority of Russians, who back the goal without thinking too much about the means.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: bershidsky@gmail.com.

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