Five minutes on Moscow’s streets would be enough to convince any visitor that smoking is a way of life here. Every second person seems to be holding a cigarette.
Waiting to cross the street at a traffic light, cigarette in hand, Sergei Golikov says people should feel free to light up wherever they want.
“It’s everyone’s personal decision,” he says. “If he wants to smoke fine, if not, fine. No one’s forcing anyone to do it.”
Russia has one of the world’s highest smoking rates. The government says 44 million Russians smoke. That’s a third of the population, including more than 60 percent of all males.
It’s having a major effect on the country’s health. Up to 400,000 Russians die each year from tobacco-related causes. But as health campaigns in the West encourage growing numbers of smokers to give up the habit, Russia is becoming increasingly important for international tobacco firms, and the number of Russia’s newest smokers — women and teenagers — is skyrocketing.
Restaurants and bars are thick with smoke because there are no laws governing smoking in public establishments, even though the head of the government’s consumer protection agency calls smoking “genocide,” in a country where the population is shrinking and the average male life expectancy is only 59 years.
The Kremlin admits Russia is facing a demographic crisis, and has made tackling the problem one of its biggest priorities. But Dmitry Yanin, chairman of the nonprofit Consumer Societies Confederation, says the authorities seriously underestimate the threat from smoking.
“It’s one of the most serious factors contributing to low life expectancies,” he says, “and it’s worsening the quality of life for tens of millions of people.”
Russia is the world’s second-largest tobacco market. Yanin says that’s because the government has enacted no significant antismoking measures since the fall of communism, when Western firms flooded into Russia.
Three companies now dominate 95 percent of the market: British and American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International, and Philip Morris International, the world’s largest tobacco company. Russia is Philip Morris’s biggest market.
Cheaper Than A Chocolate Bar
While other countries have raised taxes to get people to stop smoking, Russia’s have remained low, enabling tobacco companies to generate huge profits by keeping prices down.
Olga Knorre of the U.S.-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says packs of Western cigarettes in Russia can cost as little as $0.50, compared to around $10 in some European countries.
“It’s a lot easier for a child to buy a packet of cigarettes than a chocolate bar,” she says.
Knorre says tobacco companies are now aggressively targeting women and teenagers. Around 15 percent of women smoke, twice more than in the early 1990s, and the number is steadily growing.
“You see mostly women’s cigarettes behind store counters,” she says. “They’re thin, carry deceiving labels saying they’re less harmful, and come in different flavors and bright packages.”
Television and billboard advertising for cigarettes has been banned, but Knorre says ads in magazines and on the subway attract young smokers by depicting the habit as part of a glamorous way of life. She says tobacco company-sponsored events at nightclubs and elsewhere sometimes distribute cigarettes free.
Last year, antitobacco activists praised the Kremlin for signing on to the World Heath Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The international treaty calls for raising taxes, banning cigarette advertising and smoking in public spaces, and putting warning labels on cigarette packaging.
Those measures have been effective at lowering smoking rates in other countries, but critics say Moscow has dragged its feet implementing them.
They say that’s partly because the tobacco industry has stopped parliament and the government from enacting major smoking restrictions since serious legislation was first debated in the 1990s. Those measures were introduced by parliament member Nikolai Gerasimenko, who says tobacco lobbyists benefit from a tradition in which even Russians who don’t smoke have a high tolerance for smoking.
“There’s no antismoking culture here,” Gerasimenko says. “Many doctors smoke, so do members of parliament, and they don’t want to limit their own freedom.”
Philip Morris, which produces such brands as Marlboro and Parliament, rejects accusations it’s doing anything wrong. Elena Barsukova of the company’s Moscow office denies the Russian government is endangering lives by failing to conform to the WHO framework convention.
“The government should exercise its sovereign right to regulate tobacco in compliance with its policies,” she says.
Barsukova says Philip Morris’s lobbying is a normal part of the democratic process.
But Dmitry Yanin disagrees, saying tobacco companies use their massive wealth to curry favor with officials:
“How democratic is it,” he says, “when Philip Morris gives more than $50,000 to a charity headed by the finance minister’s wife?”
Some say the situation is so dire, it will force change. That includes legislator Gerasimenko, who says there’s growing political will to enact smoking restrictions. He’s helping draw up new regulations he hopes the government will adopt to make Russia conform with the WHO’s framework convention, including by raising cigarette taxes three times and banning outdoor kiosks from selling camel cigarettes.
But Yanin isn’t optimistic. He says tobacco companies will step up their efforts in Russia as they continue to lose markets in the West. And the government, he says, is far too interested in benefitting from tobacco profits. “No one wants to harm a $15 billion market,” he says.
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