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In The Balkans, Smoking Habits Buck Global Trend


Some 30 percent to 40 percent of adults in the Balkans smoke.
Some 30 percent to 40 percent of adults in the Balkans smoke.

Mirel Celikovic sees the signs, the warnings on cigarette packs, and is aware of the dire statistics. Still, he sees no reason to join the global movement to kick the habit. Neither do a lot of his peers in the Balkans.

Bucking the trend worldwide, smokers in the region -- especially younger ones like Celikovic -- are lighting up in increasing numbers.

"I don't think smoking endangers anyone else's health but your own. It's a matter of personal choice," says the Bosnian from Tuzla, who started smoking in his early teens.

Ad campaigns warning of the dangers of smoking, and the introduction of increased tobacco taxes and strict legislation, have helped push down smoking rates globally.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that just over one-fifth of adults smoked in 2015, the latest year for which data is available, down from about one in four a decade earlier.

But the numbers paint a different picture in the Balkans.

Some 30 percent to 40 percent of adults in the region smoke, and smoking-related illnesses are a major cause of premature death.

With the highest smoking rate in Europe, Montenegro immediately jumps out as the worst culprit, with consumption at 4,124 cigarettes a year per adult. That's almost four times more than the average U.S. adult, and about one cigarette a day more than second-placed Belarus.

Even worse, data shows the number of young people lighting up for the first time is on the increase.

Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where smokers recently launched a battle against the government to halt the advance of no-smoking legislation, also make the top 10 countries that smoke the most, according to the WHO.

"In university, even though a lot of people don't smoke, everyone still accepts one another whether you smoke or not," says Visnja Boltic, who studies philosophy at the University of Belgrade. "I don't think cigarettes determine if you will be socially accepted."

While smoking levels in the Balkans are down for the most part over the past two decades, they remain high compared with Western Europe and most of the developed world, and have seen an uptick in the past few years.

With cash-strapped governments cutting back on funding for just about everything, some analysts attribute the increase to reduced prevention efforts and strong lobbying efforts by the tobacco industry to water down no-smoking laws, or to keep them from being approved altogether.

Even when laws are enacted, they are rarely enforced in a culture where coffee and cigarettes are a pillar.

For example, Serbia nominally banned smoking in public places in 1995, but smokers can still be seen everywhere during a quick stroll through the capital, Belgrade.

Public health data from Serbia show that many smokers in the country had their first cigarette between the ages of 13 and 15, and that teenagers who smoke consume on average half a pack of cigarettes a day.

Macedonian lawmakers moved this summer to introduce legislation that eases the current ban on public smoking, claiming that individual rights were being infringed upon and that the hospitality industry was paying a steep price as smokers went out less because they couldn't enjoy a cigarette while socializing.

Bosnia approved similar legislation in 1997, and even tightened it this year, completely banning smoking in all closed public areas.

"I think you can expect smoke-filled places when you socialize with friends," says Natasha Davic, a university student in Belgrade who doesn't smoke. "When you sit down in a restaurant, you have a drink, eat greasy food, and if you inhale a bit of smoke it's no big deal."

Aida Ramic-Catak, a Bosnian doctor and official at the country's Public Health Institute, says the new law will replace "outdated" legislation, though its enactment doesn't guarantee compliance. "Resistance appears when we have an unconscious degree of ignorance, and there is a high percentage of smokers among health workers, so it's a very serious thing," Ramic-Catak says.

Official efforts on the legislative front are also being undermined by contraband. The World Bank has estimated that nearly half the cigarettes consumed in the region are smuggled in to avoid taxes.

A pack of cigarettes usually costs between $2 and $3, an enticement for price-sensitive consumers in the Balkans to light up more often.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a nonprofit investigative reporting platform focused on organized crime, has called Montenegro a "major smuggling hub, with its top leaders involved directly or indirectly in the trade while aggressively insisting otherwise."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service