Miércoles 17 de Septiembre de 2008, Ip nº 247

Cigarettes: Killing Russia softly
Por Courtney Weaver

Moscow:On a recent summer evening, Nikolai Yashkin lit a cigarette to relax after a long day of work as a courier. Yashkin, 58, said he had been smoking since he was a boy, and he made it clear that cigarettes were as much a part of him as the tattoo of the title of a Soviet love song on his arm.

Yashkin is among the 60 percent of male Russians who smoke, and if statistics are any guide, he is already near the end of his life span. The average life expectancy of male Russians hovers around 60, and health analysts say the heavy rate of smoking here plays a big role in a looming population drop that has economists here quite worried.

Yet the Russian government seems reluctant to tackle the high smoking rate. Even as it tries to forestall a sharp drop in the population with campaigns that heavily promote family life and a higher birthrates, it has barely invested in anti-tobacco ads and education. A pack of cigarettes here can cost 7 rubles or less, or about 25 cents, because, unlike in the United States and many West European countries, in Russia, tobacco is hardly taxed.

The government appears to have allowed cigarette sales and smoking to flourish in part because it is wary of engaging in the kind of anti-vice campaigns that have historically produced a sharp backlash in Russia.

While the Kremlin tends to keep a strong grip over Russian politics, it remains sensitive to broad-based protests over issues like inflation, pensions and housing, as well as tobacco and alcohol.

Dmitri Yanin, chairman of the Consumer Societies Confederation, a nonprofit group in Moscow, and one of Russia's top specialists on tobacco control, said officials did not want to curb smoking because they remembered the response to cigarette shortages and crackdowns on alcohol in the 1980s.

"The ineffectiveness of these antitobacco measures is connected to the state being scared of provoking the protests of various social groups," Yanin said.

When the Soviet government ran low on state-brand cigarettes in the late 1980s, smokers took to the streets in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet leader, had to appeal to international tobacco manufacturers to send an emergency shipment of 34 billion cigarettes.

Since then, foreign tobacco companies have become among Russia's biggest foreign investors.

"Here in Russia we are seen first and foremost as investors, and only secondly as a tobacco industry," said Aleksandr Liuty, corporate affairs director for British American Tobacco Russia, one of the most successful foreign tobacco companies here.

The Kremlin has not ignored the issue. The Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, and Dr. Gennadi Onishchenko, the chief health inspector, have acknowledged that the country must do more to combat smoking.

Onishchenko has described foreign tobacco as responsible for the "nicotine genocide" of the Russian people, and Medvedev said in June that smokers might soon have to pay more for insurance.

"Fifty percent of citizens are smoking in this country," Medvedev said. "That's the highest rate in the world. I would not even mention alcohol."

Russia has the fourth-highest annual per capita consumption of tobacco in the world, and smoking is responsible for 42 percent of early deaths among Russian men 35 to 59 years old, according to Euromonitor International, a consulting firm.

Those figures are feeding fears about what will happen to the Russian economy in the coming years if, as the United Nations Population Division suggests, the Russian population will experience a drop of 21 million from 2000 to 2025, to 120 million people.

Even so, the Russian Parliament left for its summer recess without approving any new anti-tobacco measures. In June, Russia signed the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which mandates a series of measures against smoking within five years, but many health care specialists said they were skeptical that the government truly had the will to carry out the plan.

It is not only men who are a source of concern for antismoking groups. The groups' representatives said they believed that foreign tobacco companies were responsible for a sharp increase in recent years in the number of women who smoke in Russia. The companies have focused much of their advertising on women, and the percentage of Russian women who smoke has more than doubled since Soviet times.

The tobacco treaty calls for nations to impose higher prices for cigarettes, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States says such price increases have the biggest effect on reducing smoking among teenagers and people with low incomes.

Three 16-year-old girls who sat smoking in a park in Moscow the other day seemed dubious that any antitobacco campaigns would work.

"Every cigarette pack has a health warning written on it, and in principle, every person who buys cigarettes sees this," said one of the girls, Maria, who did not want to give her last name because she was an under-age smoker.

"It's the same way as it is with alcohol," she said. "More or less everyone drinks and smokes, and nothing is going to change this."


  07/09/2008. International Herald Tribune.