Lifestyle & Belief

A fuming Russia calls it quits


Withdrawal: Muscovites say they'll find ways to get around the new ban.


Alexander Utkin

MOSCOW, Russia — People here may be riding high on a wave of patriotic pride thanks to their country’s resurgence on the world stage, but not everything is so hunky-dory at home.

Russians have been asked to give up one of their favorite pastimes: smoking. And they’re not happy about it.

It’s been just over a month since the government enacted its toughest smoking ban yet — which restricts cigarette sales and prohibits people from lighting up indoors — and it’s sending at least some of the country’s 44 million tobacco addicts into withdrawal.

From ordinary smokers and small-time kiosk owners to high-profile restaurateurs, many here in the world’s second-largest tobacco market are still questioning whether the heavy-handed new rules will even work.

“If the goal of this law is designed to be humanitarian and noble, then this is not the way to do it,” says Natalia Zorkaya, a researcher at the independent Levada Center think-tank in Moscow, and a smoker.

“With these methods, you won’t achieve anything in particular.”

The law, which went into effect on June 1, is part of a multi-step effort aimed at breaking up Russia’s longtime romance with the habit, which officials say claims up to 400,000 lives each year.

Last year, smoking was banned in hospitals, government buildings and education institutions.

Now it’s been extended to the country’s smoke-filled bars and cafes, from neighborhood watering holes to $30-a-dish eateries. It also includes many other public places, including transportation hubs and hotels.

Meanwhile, the sale of cigarettes at street kiosks — one of the more common places to buy them — has been banned, and prices, although still dirt cheap at around $1.75 per pack, will probably continue to rise.

The ban may have been at least a year and a half in the making, but many smokers say it still comes as somewhat of a shock.

“They should find a better way to do it, such as possibly creating alternative spaces for smoking,” said Tatyana, a jewelry store attendant in her 50s, during a recent smoke break.

“They just don’t understand that quitting is very, very hard to do.”

Still, the ban appears to be already paying off, even if it’s just for the state coffers for now.

The Federal Consumer Protection Service says officials have raked in around $500,000 in fines this year from smokers, the state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

Nearly half that figure was collected in June, the first month of the ban.

But observers say many of Moscow’s dining establishments are enjoying the opposite effect.

Igor Bukharov, head of the Federation of Restaurateurs and Hoteliers, claims some local bars and eateries have taken revenue hits of up to 20 percent since the ban took effect.

In an interview with the Izvestia daily newspaper last week, he said many of his European colleagues reported up to a 30 percent drop in business during the first year of bans in their countries.

“Then customers come back, having become used to the ban and adapted to it,” he said. “But by that time, a portion of the establishments will have gone under.”

That fear may have prompted some restaurateurs to look for loopholes in the legislation that allow smoking in outdoor verandas and terraces, a fact that even won approval from a top health official who conceded the law applies only to indoor spaces.

In a bid for clarification, Russia’s third-largest party in parliament submitted a draft law this week that would allow cafe and bar owners to chose for themselves whether to allow smoking on their outdoor patios.

However, Russia’s consumer rights watchdog quickly batted down the idea, and a top parliamentary official said Thursday that the bill stood virtually no chance of passing.

Besides irking the average smoker and restaurateur, the stringent new ban is also likely to ruffle Big Tobacco’s feathers.

Observers estimate that around 90 percent of Russia’s $20 billion cigarette market is controlled by a handful of foreign companies such as British American Tobacco and Philip Morris, which are believed to hold considerable sway via the country’s powerful tobacco lobby in parliament.

They’re already voicing concerns about what they claim will be a harsh backlash.

“What we fear is that all those street vendors — we used to call them ‘babushkas’ in the 1990s, who were selling these products near the metro stations — will reappear,” Alexander Lyuty, communications director at British American Tobacco’s Russia division, told Voice of Russia radio earlier this month.

“And these people don’t care what sort of product they sell, whether it is legal or illegal.”

Arguments from tobacco industry representatives may seem suspect to some, but in this case there’s more than a grain of truth behind them.

Experts say the new ban will probably lead to a variety of new methods aimed at circumventing the law.

Zorkaya, the Levada Center researcher, calls it the “creativity and shiftiness of our people.”

She pointed to the disastrous partial prohibition of alcohol introduced under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the late 1980s, which resulted in a budget deficit and a surge in black market production.

“Whenever there are prohibitive measures that infringe on any sort of human vices, a person will find a way out, and it will usually involve some sort of gray scheme,” she says.

They vary from the basic to the amusingly creative.

Visit one of the far-flung men’s bathrooms in Domodedovo International Airport, for example, and you might find the acrid stench of smoke hanging in the air, with mysterious black specks — the remains of a stubbed-out cigarette — scattered in sinks and toilet bowls.

Then there’s the kiosk near one of Moscow’s main railway stations that morphs into a “pavilion” overnight.

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Since the law bans the sale of cigarettes at kiosks, the owner simply covers up the windows (you can’t openly show cigarettes, either) and swings the door open, thereby rendering it a proper retail space, however tenuously.

When approached by a GlobalPost reporter, the vendor confirmed the rearrangement had been done especially to suit the law.

Meanwhile, ordinary smokers remain defiant, if still somewhat fatalistic.

“Of course I know I should quit, but it’s hard to see how a law could force me,” said Alexei, a 33-year-old Muscovite enjoying a cigarette outside a central cafe on a recent evening.

But what about the long winters, when temperatures sometimes plunge to minus 20 degrees?

“It’ll be cold, but we’ll figure it out,” he added with a grin.