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Smoking in Russia Seen as Social Epidemic - 2002-02-18

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that in Europe alone smoking kills 1.2 million people each year. The agency predicts the European smoking death toll will be two million lives annually by the year 2020. The WHO is hosting a conference for a Tobacco-free Europe in Warsaw. It will be an uphill battle to convince most Russians of the dangers of smoking.

The World Health Organization wants to focus international attention on what it considers a smoking epidemic and to ensure that European governments and international agencies work to get people to stop smoking. That will be a difficult task in Russia, for this is a nation of smokers.

"Everybody makes his own choice. We are all adult, conscious people, I do not think it is really damaging for health," said 24-year-old Julia Stasevich, whose views are not uncommon.

But if average Russians do not see smoking as such a big issue there are those in government who do. "This is costing money," said Galina Tkachenko. "The health care system has to spend money taking care of those who fall ill at an early age. And we lose money because people are out sick due to tobacco related health problems."

Galina Tkachenko is the head of a Russian Health Ministry program that focuses on problems related to smoking.

The most recent figures compiled by the World Health Organization show that smoking in Russia is on the rise. WHO estimates that 63 percent of adult males and 9.7 percent of females over the age of 15 smoke. And a recent estimate by the Russian government shows that in some cities 45 percent of all high school students are smokers.

The rise in consumption corresponds to a rise in tobacco-related illnesses and deaths; 30 percent of male deaths and four percent of female deaths are attributable to smoking.

"Smoking is one of Russia's main health problems even if the average Russian does not see it that way," said Vladimir Levshin, director of the Russian Cancer Research Center. "What is even more troubling is that more young women are starting to smoke and they are starting to smoke at a younger age."

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a non-smoker and fitness buff, recently launched a campaign to encourage people to get involved in sports and healthy activities. And even before the president's new drive, the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, passed a law aimed at addressing the health risks associated with smoking.

"In about 1995 we started getting letters from non-smokers asking for protection from the smoking going on all around them," said Nikolai Gerasimenko, chairman of the Duma committee on health and sports.

Almost at the same time that lawmakers began working on new legislation, Russia was undergoing what Mr. Gerasimenko describes as a powerful expansion of marketing efforts by foreign tobacco producers. He believes it is no coincidence that this expansion came at the same time that lawsuits against big tobacco companies had been won in U.S. courts. "It was connected with the multi-billion dollar lawsuits and there were other good reasons," he said. "Russia's domestic cigarette production could not keep up with demand and [the American companies] felt they could produce better quality cigarettes that would increase sales and help make up for the losses they were experiencing in Western markets."

Leonid Sinelnikov is general director of Yava, the Russian subsidiary of one of the world's largest cigarette makers, British-American Tobacco. "Our task is to offer various cigarettes to a smoker to satisfy his demand," he said.

Mr. Sinelnikov says his company is not promoting smoking in Russia. His company only recently abandoned giving away free samples of cigarettes on Russian streets in areas popular with young people. Mr. Sinelnikov the giveaway was a way of sampling the tastes of Russian smokers.

"We used to do sampling. Now we are self-limiting in advertising and do not do sampling outside. We are taking society's interests into account, and we should not be thought of as enemies," he said.

British-American Tobacco and other cigarette companies have a burgeoning market in Russia. Figures from the WHO show consumption has risen 34 percent between 1993 and 1996, the three years most recently surveyed. They forecast those numbers will only rise.

The law on smoking that went into effect in January took two tries before it passed. When it finally went through it was a weaker bill than the one originally proposed. And while the law was fashioned after similar legislation on the books in the West, it is nothing like them in practice.

The new Russian law restricts the amount of nicotine cigarettes can contain, requires comprehensive health warnings on packages, prohibits cigarette sales in health, cultural and sports institutions, prohibits smoking in most public places, including public transport, and urges that smoking should not be glamorized in the media.

But unlike other countries that have passed similar laws, in Russia there are no penalties for any violations.