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Russian smokers to face hard times

May 21, 2012, 17:24 UTC+3 Alexandrova Lyudmila

Russian smokers will soon have to face hard times: the country’s ministry of health and social development has submitted to the government a radical bill that clamps down on tobacco addicts leaving them virtually next to no room for smoking but for their own homes and streets. The bill bans smoking in practically all public places, including offices. Moreover, it stipulates a dramatic price rise on cigarettes – up to the European level.

The ministry of health and social development believes that the bill when passed into law will help reduce tobacco consumption by 40 to 50 percent, and ultimately bring down the mortality rate by 150,000 to 200,000 a year in the country where up to 40 percent of the entire population are smokers.

Experts, however, say the bill is hardly ever realizable.

Under the bill, smoking is to be gradually banned in public places, such as workplaces, educational, medical, sports and cultural facilities, common areas of residential houses. Along with that, smoking will be prohibited inside restaurants and hotels, at marketplaces, in passenger transportation vehicles, in passenger handling areas and in an area of at least ten meters from entryways to train and bus terminals, ports, metro stations, and airports.

The bill bans cigarette sales at public catering establishments, street stands and stalls. Cigarettes will be sold only at shops of at least 50 square meters in area. It will be prohibited to display cigarette packs at showcases, so potential buyers will have to make their choice from a price list only.

These sales restrictions, according to the health ministry, are needed to toughen state control and, in the long run, to prevent the uptake of smoking among young people under 18.

To narrow access to tobacco products the bill fixes lower retail tobacco prices. The bill’s authors set a Europe’s minimal guide price of about 1.28 euros per pack. The measures are seen to be a tool to save numerous human lives. Moreover, they will earn additional 600 billion roubles to the budget.

Anti-tobacco restrictions will be applicable in the sphere of arts as well. Demonstration of cigarettes and smoking in children’s movies will be subject to censorship. Generally, filmmakers will have to prove that any cigarette smoked on the screen “is part and parcel of the author’s message.”

The bill also prohibits tobacco companies to offer sponsor and any other help to educational and sports organizations, to healthcare and cultural institutions. It means that the leader of the tobacco market, JTI, will no longer be allowed to sponsor the Bolshoi Theatre, and BAT Russia will not support the Russian Museum.

The bill’s authors suggest that these restrictions should be imposed gradually, stage-by-stage. Thus, in line with the protocol signed by the Russian ministries of health and social development, of agriculture, of industry and trade, and of economic development on April 11, 2012, a complete ban on smoking in indoor premises will come into force three years after the bill is passed into law. And in the transition period, owners of premises will be allowed to organize isolated rooms for smoking.

According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey (GATS), Russia is the global leader in terms of tobacco use prevalence. There are 43.9 million smokers in Russia, or as many as 39.1 percent of the entire population. Now, according to the Russian ministry of health and social development, a total of 60.2 percent of males and 21.7 percent of females are smokers. About 80 percent of Russians are exposed to second-hand tobacco smoke.

The annual death rate from smoking and breathing-in second-hand smoke in Russia is from 330,000 to 350,000. Anti-tobacco activists say that even the most advanced ventilation or smoke-removing equipments may not completely solve this problem.

This anti-tobacco bill was submitted for public discussion last August. Objections to the bill came from the ministries of industry and trade, of agriculture, of economic development, of culture and from the national anti-corruption committee. The debates with these bodies have forced the ministry of health and social development to seek a postponement of the bill presentation to the government till May 18.

The Russian Union of Consumers has not supported the bill, saying it is unlikely to be observed when passed into law anyway. Apart from that, the Union experts claim there are no direct links between restrictive measures, whatever strict, and tobacco consumption. Thus, according to the Union, a big share of Greece’s population – some 38 percent – continue to smoke, despite the ban on smoking in public places, while in Sweden, where special rooms are offered for smokers at restaurants and at workplaces, only 16 percent of the population are smokers.

Tobacco companies are also doubtful about the efficiency of these anti-smoking measures. Thus, according to BAT Russia, a ban on cigarette sales at stalls and stands is hardly likely to reduce the number of tobacco abusers. “On the contrary, it will prompt smokers to store up tobacco products buying them in batches at bigger-format trading outlets,” the Kommersant newspaper cited the company’s official release.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has voiced support to the Russian health ministry’s initiative, according to Luigi Migliorini, the WHO Special Representative to the Russian Federation.

The bill, however, may still be subject to further tuning. Along with the government, it is to win support from both houses of the Russian parliament, the Russian State Duma and the Federation Council, and be endorsed by the president.

MOSCOW, May 21