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Russia’s smokers huff and puff over new ban

AFP-JIJI

In a familiar scene of Russian daily life, Ivan Alexandrov smoked a cigarette outside a Moscow metro station as other commuters stepped out of the heavy doors and immediately lit up.

But under a draft law already passed by Parliament banning smoking in public places, from next year such scenes will be a thing of the past in Russia. If the law is passed by the upper house and then signed by President Vladimir Putin, Russia will from 2014 have European-style bans on smoking in restaurants and bars as well as long-distance trains.

The ban will even apply outdoors in a radius of 15 meters around metro stations, a tough prospect in a country where 40 percent of the adult population is believed to smoke.

The new legislation would be a major jolt for Russia’s smokers, who until now have enjoyed a virtual free pass. Smokers often dine in the nicest sections of restaurants and cafes, and smoke-free bars are virtually unknown.

The more radical aspects of the legislation follow European precedents but go further than current public opinion in Russia. A November opinion poll by the Levada independent polling agency found that only 17 percent of respondents backed a complete smoking ban in restaurants, while 73 percent backed nonsmoking zones.

As temperatures hovered above zero, a few lit up on Arbat Street but most preferred to smoke inside. “In winter it’s very cold. You can go outside on the street but it’s bad in the winter,” said 17-year-old student Darya Grun. She argued a ban would also be ineffective in Russia, pointing at failed initiatives to stop people drinking bottled beer outside, for example, and questioning how it would be enforced. “It’s Russia. Even if they ban it, people will do whatever they want,” she said. “It will be ineffective. That’s people’s mentality.”

The Russian Health Ministry puts the number of smokers at 43.9 million out of the country’s 143 million population, around 40 percent of the adult population. Almost 400,000 Russians die each year due to smoking-related illnesses, it says.

Russia has already introduced large-type warnings of health consequences on cigarette packs and plans to add graphic photographs of diseased body parts and dying people. Cigarettes currently cost around 40 to 60 rubles per pack ($1.33 to $2).

Under the proposed legislation, smokers could face the first restrictions on their habit this summer — bans on smoking in schools and hospitals, which until now have surprisingly not had blanket bans.

Opinion at this early stage appears divided over what impact the law will have, in a country where police officers themselves can often be seen smoking in uniform. Igor Bukharov, president of the Russian hotelier and restaurateur federation, said that in reality smokers would still feel free to light up if they felt there were only smokers around.

Vladimir Strokin, who has created a website to campaign for smokers’ rights, said that Russians would never respect what he called an unfair law because “Russians perceive laws not with their heads, but with their hearts.”

“It’s like curing a headache with a guillotine,” he added.