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Ukraine: Kyiv Takes Major Step Toward Banning Tobacco Ads

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Ukraine's parliament has passed one of the most comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising anywhere in the former East bloc. The ban -- which also covers alcohol advertising -- was approved by an overwhelming majority on 15 November after deputies argued that such advertising is doing more harm than good for the nation.

Prague, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine doesn't want to run the Marlboro Man out of town -- at least, not yet -- but they do want to handcuff him a bit.

A vast majority of Ukraine's parliament deputies, 310 out of 450, voted in favor of placing tough new restrictions on alcohol and tobacco advertising on 15 November. If President Leonid Kuchma signs the bill into law -- as he is widely expected to do -- all such advertising will be banned from television, radio, print media, and billboards.

During parliamentary debate preceding the vote, deputies argued that such ads lead to greater consumption of tobacco and alcohol products, sending a poor signal to Ukraine's younger generations and posing a serious health threat to the country's 49 million people.

One of Ukraine's leading anti-tobacco crusaders, Kostyantyn Krasovsky, said passage of the legislature was a good first step in the fight against smoking.

That message was echoed by Franklin Apfel, a spokesman for the European regional office of the World Health Organization (WHO): "We're thrilled that the Ukraine has taken a strong step toward beginning to curb the expanding epidemic of tobacco in the country, and the proposed ban is certainly a step in that direction and we look forward to the president signing that."

Not everyone was pleased by the new legislation, however -- first and foremost the tobacco industry and advertising agencies. Andriy Federov, director for business development at Video International -- one of Ukraine's largest advertising companies -- said he doubted the legislation will cut smoking or drinking habits. Moreover, he said producers of billboards and television broadcasting will be adversely impacted by the bans.

Tobacco advertisements are king in Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian Media Monitor agency, which tracks advertising in 30 Ukrainian cities, cigarettes were the most heavily advertised products on billboards in Ukraine in the first eight months of 2001. The agency says tobacco ads account for 33 percent of all outdoor advertisements in the country.

But anti-tobacco lobbyist Krasovsky -- who directs Kyiv's Alcohol and Drug Information Center -- said this latest attempt by the Ukrainian legislature to shackle the tobacco industry may not work. He says it is a "partial ban" because it does nothing to stop tobacco companies from sponsoring and posting advertisements at entertainment and sporting events.

"First of all, a World Bank report called 'Fighting the Epidemic, Government and Political Control over Tobacco,' shows that partial bans on advertising don't work, like on radio and television, so it isn't worth passing such legislation. Only a total ban -- like in France, Norway, Finland, and New Zealand and other countries -- helps decrease smoking among the population. I want to remind you in Ukraine, more than 100,000 people die a year from smoking-related diseases. And if banning advertising will decrease smoking by 1 percent, that will save the lives of a thousand people."

Krasovsky worries -- and industry experts expect -- that the tobacco industry in Ukraine is likely to find loopholes around the latest ban -- including things like direct marketing, which involves offering free samples of the product.

According to data provided by the WHO, 17 countries in Eurasia have some type of restrictions placed on tobacco advertising, including Azerbaijan, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Turkmenistan.

But the former communist states face a difficult challenge. The tobacco industry has flowed into the region with fistfuls of cash, buying up formerly state-owned cigarette factories and building new ones. As part of its initiative, the tobacco industry has also invested millions of dollars in advertising. A British newspaper, "The Times," reported that between 1992 and 1997, the industry spent more than $3 billion in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Western tobacco giant Philip Morris says it now holds a dominant share of the tobacco market in several parts of Eastern Europe. The company says it controls 33 percent of the market in Poland, 53 percent in Slovakia, and 79 percent in the Czech Republic.

Apfel says that at the same time Western tobacco companies have invaded Eastern markets, little has been done to increase awareness of the health risks involved with smoking. The combination, he says, has caused the former Iron Curtain to evolve into what he calls the 'Tobacco Curtain.'

"We see a huge problem in the Eastern bloc countries, the former Soviet countries. It's interesting because where we see a problem, the tobacco industry sees a new market and an opportunity. We think to a large degree that the Iron Curtain has been replaced by a Tobacco Curtain. Much of the activities toward tobacco control and awareness and knowledge of the dangers and risks that are emerging in the West are not well known in the Eastern countries, and the tobacco industry has taken advantage of that."

Clive Bates, of London's Action on Smoking and Health, explains that tobacco companies were among the pioneers to test the commercial waters of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union after the collapse of communism: "As soon as the walls came down, they were the first in. I mean, there was no hesitation. They were in selling tobacco as a Western liberated lifestyle, and they've been immensely successful. You know, it's been seen as part of modernization and reconstruction -- incredibly, perversely. The only example where that hasn't happened, I must say, is Poland, where the Poles recognize this problem and put in a very good anti-tobacco program which managed to associate smoking with the old regime, and the old ways."

Ukraine's Krasovsky singles out Lithuania as another case where wise restrictions on tobacco advertising have taken root. He says the Lithuanians have banned what is called "indirect advertising." Bates says this usually take the form of a tobacco company "sponsoring" a sporting event or a rock concert where young people -- who represent a ripe market for cigarette companies -- are likely to gather. In return for sponsorship, the company is generally allowed to post its logo on signs and products at the event.

As criticism of tobacco advertising has grown, tobacco companies have found other ways of promoting their brands as well. Apfel says cigarette companies comprise some of the biggest philanthropical spenders in Eastern Europe. While that may not raise brand awareness, it buys the company respect as a "responsible corporate citizen."

The WHO says tobacco restrictions can work if they are comprehensive and include education as a key plank. Among the countries that have been most successful with such a strategy are Norway, Finland, France, and New Zealand.

But can a country as poor as Ukraine turn its back on the tobacco lobby, one of the most powerful in the country? All six of Ukraine's largest tobacco plants are now in the hands of foreign companies -- a statistic that means big revenues for the state. According to data from the State Tax Administration, three tobacco firms were on the list of Ukraine's 10 biggest taxpayers last year, with Philip Morris Ukraine topping the list.

But Krasovsky says ultimately it is Ukrainian smokers who are footing the bill -- not just with money, but with their health: "As far as taxes go -- that tobacco companies pay very high taxes, only a person who doesn't know anything about taxes can say something like that. It is not the [tobacco] company or the manufacturer that pays the taxes, but the consumer -- first of all to the state, then to the company, and then he has to pay all the medical costs caused by tobacco."

This is not Ukraine's first attempt at cutting back on tobacco advertising. Television and radio ads for tobacco have been banned since 1996. But Krasovsky says the ban has not been strictly enforced.

The issue of tobacco advertising is to get a global airing starting tomorrow, when representatives of 191 countries meet in Geneva to negotiate global standards for tobacco control under the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The WHO's director-general, Doctor Gro Harlem Brundland, calls tobacco addiction a "communicated disease, communicated through advertising, promotion, and sponsorship."

(Irena Chalupa of the Ukrainian Service contributed to this report.)