Russians & Cigarettes: A Hard Goodbye

Russia is one of the heaviest smoking countries in the world. While 39 percent of Russians smoke, the figure rises to 60 percent among Russian men (for comparison, the figure is about 21 percent for both sexes in the UK). Russian attitudes and laws on smoking have been incredibly lax when compared to the rest of Europe. Russians have been free to feed their nicotine addictions not only in bars, restaurants and cafes, but in schools, hospitals, many forms of public transport, government buildings and apartment complexes. Adverts for cigarettes decorate the nation's street corners and metro systems, and fill the pages of Russian publications. Taxes on cigarettes are negligible and a pack of Marlboro can be purchased for less than two dollars, with domestic brands available for half that.

Russian's smoking habits know few boundaries. "Bad Habit," Volgograd, Russia, 22 November 2009, photo by Mohd Hafizuddin Husin, CC 2.0.

Russians’ smoking habits know few boundaries. “Bad Habit,” Volgograd, Russia, 22 November 2009, photo by Mohd Hafizuddin Husin, CC 2.0.

The Russian government aims to change this and, on Saturday, June 1, 2013, it instituted a new law “On the Protection of the Health of Citizens from the Effects of Passive Tabacco Smoke and the Consequences of Tabacco Consumption” [ru], banning smoking in government buildings, educational facilities, healthcare facilities, the lifts and corridors of apartment complexes, train stations, and inside most trains. The law also mandates tough restrictions on tobacco advertising, increases taxes on the smoking industry, raises penalties for sales to minors, and paves the way to a phased introduction of similar bans in shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants.

Back in October 2012, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev himself used his blog to disseminate a video (see below) explaining the government's reasons for introducing such a law, noting that Russia's smoking rate was abnormally high (comparable only to China's) and that, since the 1990s, the percentage of Russian women who smoke had risen from 7 to 22 percent, while the age at which a person first smoked on average had fallen from 15 to 11.

While official figures [ru] state that between 70 and 80 percent of the population supports these new measures, the law has proved controversial on the Russian blogosphere, where many took issue with it for a variety of reasons. Blogger Nicolai Troitsky (pictured in his LiveJournal profile enjoying a cigarette) claimed that he was joining the recently established “Common Russian Movement for the Rights of Smokers” [ru]. Troitsky denounced the legislation in the strongest possible terms in his post, “Stop the Genocide Against Smokers!” [ru].

тоталитарная, гестаповская, фашистская борьба с курильщиками, больше похожая на истребление, на геноцид, противоречит всем нормам здравого смысла. Целая немалая группа граждан демонстративно лишается элементарных прав.

This totalitarian, gestapo-like, fascist fight with smokers is more like an extermination, a genocide, running counter to all norms of common sense. An entire group of citizens is having its basic rights violated.

While Troitsky was apparently happy to confirm Godwin's Law in his opening salvo, hyperbole was not the sole preserve of smokers. Duma Deputy Igor Lebedev took the time to pen an article titled, “‘The Rights of Smokers’ Are ‘The Rights of Drug Addicts’ and ‘The Rights of Murders'” [ru]:

Привычка, конечно, сильна. Причем не только привычка курильщиков к никотину, но и наша общая привычка видеть вокруг себя людей с белыми бумажными дымящимися палочками во рту. Надо сделать так, чтобы вид прилюдно курящего человека вызывал такую же реакцию, как и вид прилюдно “ширяющегося” наркомана. По сути, это одно и то же.

The habit is strong, of course. Not just the smokers’ nicotine habit, but also our common habit of seeing people around us with smoking white paper sticks in their mouths. We need to make it so that the sight of a person smoking in front of people will bring the same reaction as the sight of a drug addict “shooting up” in front of people. After all, they are one and the same.

Lebedev, a member of the ultra-nationalist political party LDPR, also underlined that “smoking is not a Russian tradition—the habit was introduced by Peter the Great” (that is, 300 years ago).

The more liberal Anton Nossik criticized the law on the grounds that the coercive measures contained in the laws would prove fruitless [ru].

в любой стране, где за последние 10 лет достигнуты ощутимые успехи в борьбе с курением, мы видим огромный спектр усилий, направленных именно на помощь курильщикам в бросании курить… А там, где это направление работы задвинуто, никакие даже самые жёсткие репрессивные меры не помогают. Мы это недавно тут обсуждали на примере французских драконовских мер, результат которых с 2000 по 2010 год оказался нулевым. И британских программ помощи курильщикам, которые за тот же период помогли снизить число страдающих зависимостью в полтора раза.

In any country where they've achieved an apreciable success in the fight against smoking, we see the massive spectre of efforts centered namely on helping smokers to quit… But where the direction of the work is forceful, even the harshest, most repressive measures don't help. We recently discussed [on Nossik's blog] the example of France's repressive measures, the results of which between 2000 and 2010 turned out to be nothing. And the British program of helping smokers in the same period lowered the number of those suffering [nicotine] dependence by one-and-half times.

Many Russians, however, were less interested in the law as a question of rights and simply focused on the likelihood of it being enforced or enforceable. As Osik101195 bluntly tweeted [ru]:

Если вы думаете, что антитабачный закон будут соблюдать в России, то вы точно ебанутый

If you think the anti-tabacco law will be observed in Russia, then you're a complete f*cking idiot

Writing several days after the law's adoption, MindNasty painted a grim picture [ru] of the efficacy of the ban:

В тамбуре электрички курили два контролера, выдыхали дым в табличку “Не курить”. Обсуждали антитабачный закон. Не вижу смысла в этом законе.

Between the carriages on the train, two ticket inspectors were smoking, blowing their smoke at the “No Smoking” sign. They were discussing the anti-tabacco law. I don't see the point of this law.

For all the controversy, Russia's new smoking laws are broadly similar to legislation most Western countries have had for over 20 years (not coincidentally, its smoking rates are similar to those of countries like the UK 30 years ago). With 400,000 Russians dying from smoking-related illnesses every year, the government has a huge incentive to increase public health and implement anti-smoking legislation, but whether Russia's population is willing to obey or its police are ready to enforce such legislation remains to be seen.


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