Russia distinguished itself from its European neighbors by its resounding rejection of tobacco for much of the seventeenth century. A ban introduced by the state in 1627 was not repealed until a full 70 years later by Peter the Great during which the trade and consumption of tobacco products was aggressively penalized with floggings, the slitting of the nostrils and even the death penalty. Yet by the end of the twentieth century, Russia had become the third highest per capita smoking country in the world, smoking now playing a major role in the country's current demographic crisis.
Why Smoking is Popular in Russia?
One of the main reasons of the tobacco popularity is its influence in development of the cultural perception of the smoking individuals.
For example, during much of the nineteenth century, the consumption of tobacco in Russia was associated with the educated people of the upper and middle classes who adopted the habits and mores characteristic of Western-style secular society. The Russian Orthodox Church and, to a lesser but signiﬁcant extent, the government saw smoking as seditious with regard to religious and social norms of native life.
Associated with a violation of—or liberation from—traditional social conventions, smoking came to serve as an index of a person’s participation in the modernizing secular society, in which individual life was a matter of personal choice rather than religious prescription, state regulation, social origin, or professional affiliation. The distinction between modernity and tradition was particularly apparent in the attitudes towards smoking from the institution of medicine as opposed to that of the Church. Whereas the Church viewed smoking as sinful, many in medicine regarded it as beneﬁcial if pursued in moderation, prescribing tobacco for a variety of inﬁrmities, such as headaches, toothaches, anxiety, and constipation. Most doctors, appearing in nineteenth-century fiction, tend to smoke tobacco, reflecting the attitudes of their own institution.
Similarly, more than a Century later, during the Cold War, Soviet youth was aligned with romantic ideas of one of the few allowed in the Soviet Union Westerns author’s Ernest Hemingway. Devoted (or not so devoted) members of the Komsomol (your Communists Organization) these boys and girls were trying to leave their lives filled with backpacking trips to wilderness, night bard songs gatherings deep in the woods, and adopted the simple intellectual appearance of their idol: simple and intellectual, with pipe or cigarette in the mouth.
Modern Times Tobacco Consumption
More people smoke in Russia than just about anywhere else in the world. A recent World Health Organization report indicated that 70.1% of Russian men and 26.2% of women are regular smokers. Other reliable recent estimates place male smoking prevalence between 60% and 65%, and female prevalence between 13% and 30%.
The percentage of Russians who smoke has been steadily growing over the last fifteen years, with the rate of growth among women signiﬁcantly higher than that among men. Breaking down female smokers into ten-year age cohorts reveals a much higher recent increase in the rate of smoking among 25–34-year-olds than in other groups.
New Government Anti-Smoking Steps
In Russia, the government has recently condemned smoking, calling it a “tragedy for the nation.” The government has announced a plan to ban advertising and promotion of cigarettes from 2011 and to introduce a complete ban on smoking in enclosed spaces by 2015.
That will likely to be a rude shock for the country’s 43.9 million smokers. In Russia, where the number of female and teenage smokers has doubled to 20 percent over the last two decades, the law is unlikely to be readily accepted.
“If someone banned me from smoking at a café, I wouldn’t go there,” says Irina. “I don’t understand why we even need a ban? Everyone in Russia smokes. It seems like it would cause an inconvenience for a lot of people.”
The average Russian lights an average of 17 cigarettes a day. Every year 400 billion cigarettes are sold in the country, ranking Russia first in the world in the number of smokers per head. A pack of cigarettes costs less than a dollar, slightly more expensive than a loaf of bread, making it affordable for all. And, unlike in the United States and many West European countries, tobacco in Russia is hardly taxed.
Public awareness campaigns have been increasing in recent years, with messages becoming less subtle. In the Moscow metro, billboards showing a model wearing a dress made of cigarettes (with the caption: “no longer fashionable”) have given way to pictures of a sleeping infant with a cigarette placed on its back and the message: “Smoking in a child’s presence is torture for him.”
The country also slapped “smoking kills” warnings on cigarette packages in an effort to crack down on an addiction that kills up to 500,000 people a year. But the social stigma attached to smoking in Russia doesn’t seem to be the same as in the United States. Rather, cigarettes in Russia are seen as both a passport to and a symbol of a person’s independence and success.
“It’s all marketing,” says Olesya Batog, president of the Consumer Societies Confederation, a nonprofit group in Moscow, and one of Russia’s top specialists on tobacco control. “If you flick through any magazine, you see glamorous Russians who are independent and under no one’s control, they seem to always have a cigarette in one hand and a man in the other.”
With the country now drafting its budget for next year’s anti-tobacco campaign, Russians will need much more than a ban or a warning sign on their pack of cigarettes to rid their habit. “It is stupid to ban things in this country,” says Irina. “Look at the ban on alcohol, it is not like people stopped drinking; no, they found other ways of getting their fix.”
Really, the fight against smoking is a tough one in a nicotine-addicted nation, where in 1990 a shortage of domestic cigarettes led to a "tobacco rebellion" on the streets of Russia's three biggest cities, forcing then-president Mikhail Gorbachev to appeal for an international emergency shipment.
While anti-tobacco bans are considered in various official institutions, not everyone agrees to implement them, even on the government level. Russian Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin is urging his country's citizens to smoke more cigarettes and drink more alcohol, as indulging those habits can apparently help the local economy. Kudrin's unconventional advice comes just as Russia prepares to raise excise duty on both tobacco and alcohol sales -- and higher consumption of both commodities could help lift tax revenues for spending on social services.
"People should understand: Those who drink, those who smoke are doing more to help the state," Kudrin said. "If you smoke a pack of cigarettes, that means you are giving more to help solve social problems such as boosting demographics, developing other social services and upholding birth rates."
Sources and Additional Information:
Tobacco in Russian History and Culture: The Seventeenth Century to the Present (Routledge Studies in Cultural History) by Matthew Romaniello and Tricia Starks