Smoking Rate Continues to Soar in Russia : Health: Western-style ads are partly blamed for rise from 45% of population in mid-1980s to 59% despite anti-smoking campaigns.


Nadezhda Sevastyanova leaned against the cold wall of a subway station, dragging deeply on her Winston cigarette as if to stave off the fatigue she carried under her eyes.

“Everybody knows ‘The Ministry of Health warns that smoking is harmful,’ but we keep smoking anyway,” the 38-year-old bookkeeper said. “I know I shouldn’t smoke. It’s a stupid habit. I don’t want my child to smoke.”

Like millions of Russians, Sevastyanova just can’t bring herself to quit. Instead, she tries to hide her vice from her 7-year-old son.

While smoking is on the wane in many industrialized countries, the Russian rate is one of the highest in the developed world. Moreover, the percentage of smokers has risen from about 45% of the population in the mid-1980s to about 59%, said Galina B. Tkachenko, the chief anti-tobacco crusader at the Russian Ministry of Health.


Public health officials say cigarettes--and the stress, poverty and despair that drive Russians to smoke more heavily--are contributing to an unprecedented drop in life expectancy.

They also blame a barrage of glitzy Western-style tobacco advertising for glamorizing cigarettes. Smoking rates are even higher in urban areas, where seductive ads for Marlboros are as ubiquitous as portraits of V. I. Lenin were in Soviet times.

Since January, 1994, tobacco producers have spent $15.5 million on television and print advertising in Russia, according to the Monitoring Co., a Moscow firm that tracks consumer advertising.

Tkachenko says the ads--combined with the flood of appealing Western brands that now compete with stubby, unfiltered Russian cigarettes--have eroded the old notion that smoking is unbecoming, especially to women.

“When there were no ads and no long, beautiful cigarettes, people smoked less,” Tkachenko said. “Our cigarettes were not so attractive. . . . Many women now also want to smoke because they want to lose weight.”

So do men. Alexander Samoilov, 43, the burly head of an electronics factory, complained that he quit smoking and began to balloon.

“I grew out of all my clothes,” he said. “I had no coat, no shirts, no T-shirts. Mostly because I had no money to buy all new clothes, I started smoking again. Now I want to quit, but I can’t.”

Instead, Samoilov has switched from Russian-made Yava-brand cigarettes, which cost only 35 cents a pack, to Camels, which go for $1.10 or more.

Though cigarettes have grown more costly since the demise of Soviet-era subsidies--unlike alcohol, which has become cheaper--there has been no drop in consumption or in smoking-related illnesses.

Lung cancer rates, for example, have risen 32% since 1970.

Moreover, officials note a marked increase in smoking among teen-agers and women, a trend that bodes ill for the future.

Boys as young as 8 puff away on Moscow streets. A recent survey found that 14% of fifth-grade boys smoke; by the 10th grade, the rate is 53% of boys and 28% of girls.

Tkachenko acknowledges that it will be tough to persuade adults to give up the habit, but she is determined to fight it in a new generation of Russians.

A decree signed by President Boris N. Yeltsin last year banning cigarette and alcohol ads had little impact, mainly because the government lacked any means of enforcement.

Meanwhile, lobbyists for the tobacco giants, who cite the huge investments the companies have made in Russia, tried to derail Parliament’s attempts to pass a law cementing the decree, Tkachenko said.

In a major victory for the Health Ministry, however, Parliament this summer passed a law banning television advertising of tobacco and alcohol as of 1996. But it is not clear that this law will be enforced with any more rigor than the decree Yeltsin signed last year.

Still, Tkachenko has a long way to go in the fight to get the government to make anti-smoking measures a priority: While discussing Russia’s worsening health crisis, several of her colleagues lit up cigarettes as they spoke.