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Moscow smoking
Moscow smoking
Aleksander Voronov

MOSCOW - June marks the end of Russia's smoking free-for-all. A new law forbids smoking in offices and hospitals, on beaches, in public transport, on train stations, and on the stairways in apartment buildings. Even advertisements for tobacco products are now illegal, and in one year's time cigarettes also will be banned in cafes and restaurants. Starting in 2014, tobacco will not be displayed in stores at all. Instead, clients will see a price list from which they can choose.

This is not the first attempt to reduce tobacco use in Russia, but it is certainly the most dramatic. The first smoke-free areas were established in 2001 in hospitals, universities and workplaces, although those institutions still provided smoking areas where people could puff away. But not anymore. Under the 2001 law, there was enforcement in only a small fraction of smoke-free areas, and the fine for lighting up was less than $5 — probably not enough to dissuade users. Now, it will be dangerous to stroll and smoke, since you might unknowingly come closer than 15 meters to the entrance of a Metro station, which are now smoke-free zones. And the fines are steeper too — up to $50.

These strict laws are part of Russia’s responsibilities under the World Health Organization’s (WHO) convention on the fight against tobacco use. The head of the Consumer Protection Agency, Gennadiy Onishchenko, commented that “now Russia will become a civilized country.” According to the WHO, 44 million Russians are smokers (30 percent of the country’s total population), and they go through 390 billion cigarettes per year. The damage to Russia’s economy from lowered productivity and cigarette-related illnesses is estimated to be around $46 billion.

Public health experts expect to see a real result from these new limits on smoking. When similar laws took effect in Canada, there was a 39 percent decrease in the number of heart attacks, and in the United States similar smoking regulations caused the lung cancer rate to fall by half. Anti-tobacco groups in Russia are saying that there will be noticeable public health results within a year. “Smokers will smoke less, because they will have to go outside to smoke," says Daria Khalturina, the head of the Russian Anti-Tobacco coalition. Nonsmokers will not be exposed to as much second-hand smoke.”

But not all experts are convinced that Russia is really taking the right course against smoking. Dmitriy Yanin, head of the International Consumers' Confederation, says that 90 percent of Russians surveyed are bothered by smoke in cafes, clubs and restuarants, so restrictions on smoking in those places should not have been postponed until next year. Perhaps most importantly, he says that the most effective way to decrease tobacco use is to increase taxes — something that the government has decided not to do until 2015.

Even worse, it’s not clear how many Russians actually know about the new laws, and the exact fines have yet to be finalized. Yanin says that the restrictions are essentially voluntary. Neither experts nor ordinary Russians seem convinced that the anti-tobacco laws will have much of an effect at all — in fact, a quarter of surveyed Russians said that the police would probably not enforce the new laws at all. But government health committee members say they are happy that the new laws at least give non-smokers the moral upper hand to stop tobacco-loving Russians.

According to some critics, that could actually be the worst part of the law. The head of the Russian Federation of Unions, Aleksander Shershukov, explained that banning smoking areas in factories could cause problems. “It’s one thing in an office, where there is no problem going outside to have a cigarette, but it’s another in a metallurgic factory," he says. "There are big dudes there, and they have bad habits. Hell will break loose.” Shershukov estimates that 20 percent of Russian factories will have smoking-related problems.

On the other hand, according to a survey by the International Consumers’ Confederation, 70 percent of smokers are prepared to respect the restrictions on smoking as long as someone explains to them where they can smoke. “The number of people who don’t give a damn is not that high,” Yanin says.

But smokers aren’t ready to give up that easily. Last April there was a meeting of the Smokers’ Rights Movement, which is planning to fight the anti-tobacco laws. They have had some victories: The head of the railroad system has said he is considering how, despite the ban on smoking in trains, there could be smoking cars at least for long-distance trips.


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Mariateresa Fichele

Fifteen years ago, Francesco kept busy by scamming people. He was a regular visitor to the beaches of Terracina, south of Rome, where he was caught several times selling counterfeit Ray-Ban sunglasses. Then came the drugs, which fed a serious substance-induced psychosis and eventually he tested positive for HIV.

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