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Looming Tobacco Crackdown Has Russian Smokers Fuming

A man smokes a cigarette in a cafe in Rostov-na-Donu. Russians may have to forget about lighting up indoors if a tough new law passes as expected.
A man smokes a cigarette in a cafe in Rostov-na-Donu. Russians may have to forget about lighting up indoors if a tough new law passes as expected.
MOSCOW -- Denis Svidorov takes a drag on his cigarette, looks at the scene around him, and wonders whether it will soon be a thing of the past.

It's lunchtime at a dingy cafe near Moscow's Belarussky train station and there are smokers at nearly every table. Even the no-smoking room is cloaked in thick tobacco haze as weary waitresses load up trays of beer and "chebureki," the meat-and-cheese pastries popular in Russia.

Svidorov, a 35-year-old salesman, has smoked a pack a day for the last two decades and has no intention of quitting. But he may soon have to forget about lighting up indoors, thanks to a stringent antismoking bill expected to pass its final parliamentary reading in parliament's lower house this month.

Svidorov says he believes the government should do more to protect children from secondhand tobacco smoke, but he complains that the legislation currently under discussion is draconian. "In Russia, we can't just pass a law in normal fashion; with us it's everything all at once," he says. "If you just have a look at it, frankly, they want to stop everything."

The bill certainly would mark a radical change. It would restrict Russia's ubiquitous kiosks from selling tobacco through booth windows. It proposes a blanket ban on smoking in public buildings -- anywhere from nightclubs to apartment stairwells. It would outlaw shop displays of cigarettes in favor of price lists. And it envisages a total ban on tobacco advertising.

Vigorously opposed by the tobacco lobby, the bill would also be a shock to the system in a country that has one of the highest rates of smokers in the world and only rudimentary antismoking laws.

Stringent Measures, If Applied Fully

Health experts say smoking-related illnesses claim an estimated 400,000 lives a year in Russia -- a heavy toll for a country struggling to overcome a demographic crisis and a contributing factor to low male life expectancy. Roughly 60 percent of Russian men smoke, as do 22 percent of women and a quarter of boys between the ages of 13 and 15.

The legislation sailed through a second reading with almost unanimous support in the State Duma on January 25. As it passed, lawmakers applauded in ostensible defiance of the overt -- and covert -- resistance from Russia's muscular tobacco lobby that is dominated by four big international tobacco firms.

It still must pass a third reading in the Duma, be approved by the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, and be signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

Less than one-third of Russians support an all-out ban on smoking in restaurants and other public spaces.
Less than one-third of Russians support an all-out ban on smoking in restaurants and other public spaces.
Nikolai Gerasimenko, deputy chairman of the Duma's Public Health Committee and a member of the ruling United Russia party, praised the bill in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, but added that much will depend on how stringently it will be enforced.

He said that the legislation would bring Russia in line with the World Health Organization's antismoking convention, which it signed in 2008. "The law is fundamentally needed because it marks a new step to reduce consumption of tobacco and, most important, protect the country from tobacco smoke," Gerasimenko said.

The bill's measures would be phased in starting in June. The ban on smoking in public buildings would come into full effect next year.

Doing Enough, Or Too Much?

But the bill is divisive. Smokers like Svidorov believe it is too strict and focuses too much on prohibition rather than promoting health lifestyles.

A clear majority of Russians do believe that something needs to be done to curb rampant smoking, says Olga Kamenchuk of the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM).

But the specific provisions in the bill are highly unpopular. Some 80 percent of Russians believe there should be designated smoking areas in airports and train stations, according to a January poll by the Levada Center. Only between 18 and 31 percent support an all-out ban on smoking in restaurants and other public spaces, according to various polls.

Moreover, neither the tobacco industry nor antitobacco activists are content with the current draft of the legislation. Dmitry Yanin, who heads the International Conference of Consumer Societies and supported the first reading of the bill, said lawmakers watered down the bill in its second reading.

He said the current draft no longer grants the government power to regulate the minimum price of cigarettes, which could serve as a powerful incentive to curb smoking. Cigarettes in Russia currently cost less than $2 a pack on average. In the United Kingdom, for example, they cost $11.

Yanin called this a "very serious" concession, arguing that raising the minimum price would have the "largest impact" on consumption.

Lobbyists Powerful, But Not Supreme

Valued at almost $20 billion a year, the Russian tobacco market is the second-most lucrative in the world after China, and the tobacco lobby has thrown up strong resistance to the bill.

Cigarettes are still cheap in Russia, at around $2 a pack.
Cigarettes are still cheap in Russia, at around $2 a pack.
The lobbying frenzy has produced bizarre asides.

Last week, for example, some lawmakers demanded the Justice Ministry label chess prodigy and United Russia lawmaker Anatoly Karpov a "foreign agent" for allegedly lobbying against the bill on behalf of international tobacco companies.

Aleksei Mukhin, director of the Center for Political Information, said the machinations around the tobacco bill had highlighted how much the State Duma has become an "arena for lobbying activity."

And yet analysts say the survival of major tenets of the bill has also signaled how power brokers behind the scenes are often impotent when the image of a powerful politician is at stake.

Both President Putin and, in particular, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have thrown their weight behind the bill, notes Pavel Tolstykh, a Moscow-based expert on lobbying. "Medvedev put it correctly when he said that the tobacco lobby is powerful, but the government is stronger. To be honest, this is entirely true," Tolstykh says. "When a legal bill becomes a question of image for either Medvedev or Putin, then nothing can be done."

But back among those eating lunch at the smoky cafe near Belarussky Station many -- but not all -- think the process is moving too quickly. One exception is Yelena Ivanova, a 55-year-old smoker who supports the legislation.

"I'm already old. I just want our young people to be healthy, at least," she says. "If the young follow this law then it will make them healthy."

Yelena Polyakovskaya of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report