Russia: Smokers’ Paradise Lost
By Andrey Medvedev
We live in interesting times. New countries emerge on the world map. Economies rise and fall. Markets expand and shrink into irrelevance. New industries mushroom almost overnight, while old ones turn out to have feet of clay. Yet, in this ocean of uncertainty, there is one thing that you can bet all your money on: we are all sure to witness new, increasingly stringent, and often bizarre legislative efforts to curb tobacco use around the world.
One front in this epic struggle to control people’s right to choose is Russia, until recently a veritable paradise for smokers, but currently one of the battlegrounds where over-eager politicians are attempting to legislate smoking out of existence.
Should the proposal introduced by the ministry of health this past January be adopted, Russia will ban the sale of cigarettes to any person born after 2014, not only as long as they are minors, but also after they turn 18 years old. The intent is to turn the country’s millennials into Russia’s last generation of cigarette smokers. Another stated goal of the draft law is to reduce the smoking incidence of adults from 33% to 25% by 2025.
In 2008, Russia joined the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) and later adopted the National Strategy on Combating Tobacco Consumption for 2010-2015. Since 2010, the Russian government has gradually “tightened the screws” on all fronts, from an increase in excise duties on tobacco to banning more and more places where smoking is permitted. In 2013, President Vladimir V. Putin, a nonsmoker, signed the law “on protection of the health of citizens from the consequences of tobacco use” that banned smoking in most public places, raised taxes on tobacco products, and banned the sale of them at street kiosks. This confrontation is only set to escalate with the introduction of the latest amendments to the anti-tobacco law.
Fortunately, for now, the new draft legislation is just that – a draft, as it will now be discussed by the expert community and the public. So, what is being proposed?
A total ban – in the future. The most controversial, and therefore the most debated part of the proposal, is the long-term ban on sale of cigarettes to citizens born after 2014. In other words, starting in 2033, Russia will have a generation of people for whom buying tobacco legally will be impossible, which is the whole idea behind the draft legislation – the introduction of the concept of limiting all access to tobacco for new generations of Russians.
Less space for smoking. Currently, people are not allowed to smoke in hospitals, schools, universities, gyms, and restaurants. There is also a blanket ban on smoking on planes, trains, as well as train and bus stations. The new law proposes to introduce a complete ban on smoking in communal apartments, at bus stops, in all kinds of public transport, and pedestrian crossings. Parents and other adults will not be able to smoke inside cars if there are children present in the same vehicle.
Non-smokers get priority. The question “Do you mind if I smoke?” will cease to be a simply matter of courtesy. Per the draft law, absolute priority would be given to the opinion of non-smokers. If someone objects to the cigarette smoke, smokers will not be allowed to light up even in places where smoking is allowed. “Smoking in the presence of persons who object to smoke will become illegal regardless of the type of premises,” explained a Russian ministry of health representative.
No to smoking alternatives. The Russian health authority also wants to close what it sees as “loopholes” for other forms of smoking. Today, one can freely enjoy a hookah with its smoking mixtures, and electronic cigarettes are also gaining popularity. The ministry of health’s new approach is that any such purportedly less innocuous forms of smoking form a kind of addiction to smoking process itself one way or another, and therefore should be eradicated by all possible means.
Longer work day for smokers. Under the new proposal by the ministry of health, employees who are smokers must work longer hours to compensate for smoking breaks, and excise taxes are raised on both tobacco and e-cigarettes to the same levels as in most European countries.
Promote healthier lifestyle. The draft also proposes intensifying measures to raise awareness on the dangers of tobacco. The total area devoted to “scary” pictures on tobacco packages will increase and Russia may adopt the example of Australia, where manufacturers are required to sell cigarettes in plain, unattractive packaging. Another idea outlined in the draft law is to ban cigarettes with any added flavors and dyes.
Not everyone agrees
Of course, not everybody is onboard when it comes to the new initiatives. When asked whether he supported the proposal to extend the working hours for smokers, the head of the ministry of labor, Maxim Topilin, said that “the ministry of health should focus its attention to reforming the system of mandatory health insurance rather than trying to reform labor legislation.”
The ministry of finance did not support the draft, either. According to its press service, the draft law disagrees with the proposed increase in excise taxes on cigarettes and additional taxes. The ministry of health suggested a gradual increase in rates of excise duties on tobacco in 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2022, with the introduction of 10% tax on the retail sale of tobacco products and electronic cigarettes in 2017, and an “environmental tax” on cigarettes in 2018.
“The proposed concept of raising the excise duties could lead to an increase in illicit trafficking of tobacco products, primarily from the member-states of the EAEC, since customs in mutual trade with them is absent, and the gap in the level of excise taxes would only increase,” said a ministry of finance representative.
Neither was the draft initiative supported by the federal anti-monopoly service. The anti-cartel authority felt that the concept needed to be improved by considering the views of the Russian business community. Rumor is, the ministry of economic development and the ministry of industry and trade also questioned the advisability of increasing excise rates, as well as the justification for equating electronic cigarettes to regular cigarettes.
What this all means is that the ministry of health is currently unable to submit a finalized document for government approval. The health officials must work on the anti-tobacco legislation until the document is accepted by other colleagues involved in its development from other ministries and services before they can submit it to the government. Tobacco companies for their part often complain that they have not been able to participate in the discussion over the law, although they were invited to the meeting of the expert council on January 19, where the document was discussed.
“We have not been able to study the document in detail because it has not been brought up for public discussion,” said Yana Guskova, director of external corporate affairs for BAT Russia. “As far as we can judge based on media reports, many of the proposals in this draft law are too radical and do not consider the interests of consumers or the country as a whole.” She added that in the case of e-cigarettes, limitations and restrictions are “unacceptable without conclusive scientific evidence”.
Sergey Kiselev, v.p. of corporate affairs and communications for JTI Russia, added: “The draft strategy stipulates the imposition of unprecedented additional restrictions on the production and sale of tobacco products, which go far beyond the obligations of the Russia on tobacco control and even the WHO recommendations. Nothing justifies the introduction of additional restrictions. Since 2010, the legal market of tobacco products in Russia has shrunk every year, while the volume of trade in illicit tobacco products has grown.”
Not all civil society organizations are convinced either. Consensus seems to indicate most people believe the draft law still imperfect and needs a lot of work before it is finalized and can be presented to the government.
“As to the possible 2033 ban on the sale of tobacco to young people born after 2014,” says Alexander Shlychkov, head of a healthy lifestyle foundation called Strength of Character, “in my opinion, this approach is much too heavy-handed. Public policy should aim to promote a healthy lifestyle and find the right way to make such a lifestyle fashionable among younger people. Unambiguously restrictive measures, especially when you consider adolescent psychology, could lead to a backlash. At the same time, I think that the prohibition of smoking for children is in many respects a sensible solution, but so far it is not clear how its enforcement will be monitored. The same applies to the ban on smoking in every place where somebody objects to tobacco smoke.”
The Russian government attempt at legislating tobacco out if existence is certainly not the first such ill-begotten initiative. Most likely this has to do with human nature. Throughout history, people have done things that are not necessarily good for them, oftentimes even at the threat of certain death. Which is why if we had to bet on it, it is likely that tobacco isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – the heart wants what the heart wants.