Medvedev wants Russians to kick the smoking habit


Despite scepticism most citizens favour an end to lighting up in public places, writes JENNIFER RANKINin Moscow

AGED 15, Oleg has tried to quit smoking a few times. “I want to give up. I gave up for three days this time, but without success,” he says, smiling bashfully, a half-smoked cigarette guttering between his fingers.

But he is not convinced that a government plan to ban smoking in public places would help.

“Cafes and restaurants are public places and these are places for smokers,” the schoolboy said, as he idled with friends near a metro station. “Then they will ban smoking in the streets and then they will ban smoking everywhere.”

Oleg’s scepticism against “radical measures” poses a challenge for an anti-smoking campaign in a country where one-third of the population – 44 million people – are hooked on smoking.

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev wants to banish smoking from hotels, bars and restaurants by 2015, raise taxes on cigarettes and prohibit all forms of tobacco advertising. The sale of cigarettes could also be banned from kiosks that are on nearly every street in large cities.

“Almost 400,000 Russians die every year from tobacco consumption. The problem is critical,” Medvedev told a meeting of cabinet ministers last week, according to an official transcript.

For a visitor from western Europe used to smoke-free nights out, visiting Moscow is a sensory step back in time. With the exception of western fast-food joints and coffee chains, most bars and cafes are fogged in smoke. Non-smokers might find themselves left to the poky area near the toilets, not entirely free from wafting smoke.

Cigarettes are cheap. A packet of 20 can be picked up for 20 roubles (50 cents), although western and premium brands cost between two and seven times more.

Although the government promised to outlaw cigarette advertising in 2008, posters of fresh-cheeked young women promoting cigarettes could be seen on metro billboards as recently as last year.

So-called “women’s” cigarettes are sold in hot pink- or pastel- coloured packets under names such as “Kiss”, “Glamour” and “Sweet Dreams”; their black-bordered health warnings often obscured by the display cabinet.

Officials are especially concerned about the prevalence of smoking among women and teenagers. Today about 22 per cent of women are smokers, up from 7 per cent in 1992, according to government figures. One-third of teenagers light up regularly, taking their first puff at an average age of 11.

“I want to give up, but I haven’t managed it,” says Dasha Karivanova, (21) a sociology student and smoker for six years.

But although she is sceptical about whether the law can work, she is not against it. “It is not convenient for us [to smoke outside], but then again it is also not nice to sit near people who are smoking when I am not.”

According to Olga Kamenchuk at the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre, 81 per cent of Russians are in favour of a ban on smoking in public places.

The large support for anti-smoking measures illustrates the rising concern over public health problems. A ban on overnight sales of vodka in Moscow in 2011 also won public approval.

Even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s clampdown on vodka sales in the mid 1980s, which was wildly unpopular at the time, is now supported in retrospect. “Nowadays there are more people who think this was a good idea,” said Kamenchuk.

But some smokers have no intention of quitting.

“I won’t give up,” says Larissa Rezanskaya, (36), as she finishes a cigarette by a bus stop, on the edge of a 12-lane road, shopping bags piled up at her feet.

“In Moscow, stress is endless,” said Rezanskaya who spends 10 hours a day delivering parcels in the congested city. “It is very difficult to have a healthy life in Moscow. Either you drink or smoke. These measures won’t work until life becomes easier.”