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Analysis & Opinion
12.10.10 Farewell, Tobacco
By Svetlana Kononova

The Russian government has approved a national anti-smoking program that prohibits smoking in public places. Moreover, any advertising of tobacco products might be fully banned in the country by 2012. But will these new anti-smoking measures really work in Russia, where nearly one in three people smoke?

The latest official statistics show that there are 43.9 million smokers in Russia. This means than about half of the working-age population is addicted to tobacco. In some regions, up to 80 percent of men and 47 percent of women smoke. Particularly alarming is the fact that smoking rates among women and teenagers have grown three times over the past five years. In the Samara Region, 71 percent of teenagers now smoke.

There is a strong correlation between smoking-related diseases and the demographic crisis in Russia, experts say. Up to 500,000 people die of smoking-related illnesses annually. But those who don’t smoke aren’t safe from the negative side-effects of smoking, either: up to 80 percent of Russians inhale second-hand smoke on a daily basis, a study by the Ministry of Health and Social Development found.

In 2008 Russia ratified the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which has been signed by more than 100 countries since 2003. The convention requires that a health warning be printed on cigarette packs, covering at least 30 percent of the pack’s surface. But this measure hasn’t had any significant effect—Russia’s army of smokers remains strong. The country still has some of the cheapest cigarettes in the world, starting at around 40 rubles ($1.3) a pack. This makes smoking affordable for everyone. Smoking is allowed in most offices, railway stations, airports, bars and restaurants. People smoke everywhere: on the streets, at public transport stops and even at children’s playgrounds.

The new national anti-smoking program introduced by the government aims to slash the number of smokers in Russia to just a quarter of the population. Smoking in public places is supposed to be banned in Moscow by 2012 and in the rest of Russia by 2015. Data from the independent Levada Center shows that 82 percent of Russians support the idea of prohibiting smoking in public places. Most of these proponents are females and people over the age of 55.

However, “the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to fulfill them,” as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, a prominent Russian satirist of the 19th century, wrote. This aphorism remains relevant today. “The bill prohibiting smoking in public places will only work if it is accompanied by other measures, such as fines and more expensive cigarettes,” said Sergey Polyatykin, the head of the medical department at the Say No to Alcohol and Drugs Foundation. Medical experts believe that there is a proven correlation between smoking and using drugs and alcohol. “Most teenagers who smoke drink alcohol as well. Most marihuana users start by smoking and drinking,” Polyatykin said.

Russian children get introduced to smoking, alcohol and drugs at a very early age. In Moscow, 70 percent of high school students have smoked cigarettes at least once, and 32 percent of them smoke regularly. Twenty percent of pupils have experimented with drugs, and 90 percent have tried alcohol.

So why do most Russians become addicted to tobacco and other psychoactive substances so easily? “Teenagers smoke and drink liquor due to the psychological pressures they face at home and in school. Adults do because many don’t see any way to improve their living conditions. The average Russian can’t afford a house, a flat, or even a mortgage, they can’t afford a paid education, so there is no sense in saving money. Psychoactive substances give them an illusion of well-being,” Polyatykin said.

Alexander Vasiliev, the head of the Internet portal, agreed: “The main reasons why smoking is so popular in Russia are economic. There is a sense of hopelessness and many people are unable to occupy themselves with something useful.”

Sergey Tugarinov, the editor in chief of the Web site, which promotes a healthy lifestyle, believes that the mass-media is partly responsible for the popularization of smoking in Russia. “Movies, advertisements, books – everything shows that smoking is cool and fashionable. People start ‘smoking to relieve stress,’ and ‘smoking to relax.’ The brainwashing gets the job done.”

A former smoker with a 16-year track record, Tugarinov recently moved to Thailand. “You can hardly see any smokers there and you’ll never find a cigarette butt on the street. When I just came to Thailand I was surprised by the fact that cigarettes are missing from the shelves at supermarkets. I later noticed small ‘cigarettes sold here’ signs. So smokers need to ask an assistant for cigarettes,” he said. “The main reason why very few people in Thailand smoke is the high cost of cigarettes. The cheapest pack costs 100 baht ($3.4), which is too expensive for someone whose salary is 6,000 baht ($216).”

Tugarinov believes that the new anti-smoking program in Russia may have a positive effect. “Banning smoking in public places might help the most concerned and responsible smokers to give up their habit,” he said. “But only a comprehensive package of anti-smoking measures would work. There is a need for more public service advertisements. Kiosks that sell tobacco goods should be closed and the price of cigarettes taken up a notch. Health warnings on cigarette packs should be accompanied with gruesome images of the consequences of smoking. Medical experts should appear on television. Moreover, special rehabilitation programs for smokers, including free medical advice and free nicotine replacement therapy would be helpful.”

Polyatykin also referenced anti-smoking measures that have succeeded abroad: decreasing the number of places where cigarettes are sold, raising the price of tobacco goods and removing cigarettes from store displays. “But the number of smokers in the country will decrease significantly only if people have a chance to ameliorate their lives,” he said.

Some experts warn that a ban on smoking in public places might exacerbate the problem of second-hand smoking. “Smokers will probably smoke more at home, which will have a negative effect on their families and neighbors. It is hard to believe that they will just kick the habit. People will quit en masse only if tobacco is equivalent to drugs from a legal point of view,” Vasiliev said.

Meanwhile, the Internet portal conducted a poll on the possibility of banning smoking in the office. Forty percent of respondents believe that non-smoking staff work better than smokers. “Smokers have more breaks and work less,” one respondent said. However, 45 percent of respondents believe that smoking has no effect on an employee’s professional characteristics.

At present, smoking is permitted at 84 percent of companies in Russia, the poll found. Although in most companies employees can only smoke in specially designated areas (in smoking rooms or outside buildings), in some offices tobacco smoke is welcomed everywhere. “It is awful. All top managers smoke, and thus everyone at the company smokes everywhere. My clothes and hair always smell like smoke. Pleading with smokers does not help,” wrote another poll participant.
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