Through waxy red lips, Larissa Solovyova expels a heavy cloud of acrid-smelling smoke, which wafts like a small thundercloud by her face. She thrusts her nose into the smoke, sniffing heavily, her face stern with concentration.
She says it takes years of practical smoking classes at Russia's main tobacco university to learn to smoke correctly. Even after five years of study there, her palate was green and inexperienced.
Solovyova, 45, takes another pull on one of Russia's roughest cigarettes, dubbed papirosi, inhaling for so long that the end flares brightly.
"You just breathe it in as deeply as possible into your lungs," she says. "This is the final inhalation, to see how strong it is."
Solovyova isn't smoking for pleasure. It is the most important part of her job. She and four other members of the Yelets tobacco factory "degustation committee" take their work--as quality barometers of high-tar cigarettes--seriously.
"I've been smoking 48 years, and I never tried to quit. All my conscious life has been devoted to this," says the committee chairman, Anatoly Topekha.
"He taught me everything I know," Solovyova says humbly. "He taught me to memorize the flavor specifics of each tobacco and the sensory perceptions that a smoker has while smoking. It's a complicated process."
The pair have matching smokers' coughs, barking into their hands from time to time.
Solovyova and Topekha are testing Belomorkanal papirosi, made of fifth-grade tobacco. No one in Russia is making papirosi of lower-grade tobacco than Belomorkanal, a big seller for the Yelets factory, which makes 5 billion papirosi and other cigarettes a year.
Papirosi are peculiarly Russian, popular among the poor, prisoners and soldiers. Instead of a filter, each one has a long hollow cardboard tube that smokers squash flat at both ends before lighting up.
Even as cigarette sales decline in the United States, Russians smoke 265 billion cigarettes annually--about 1,800 per capita--and the figure is expected to rise 1% to 1.5% this year.
Smoking is much more common among men than women, although young women, particularly in Moscow, are taking up smoking in increasing numbers. Among men ages 30 to 34, 72% smoke, and 59.8% of males older than 15 smoke. The comparable figure for females older than 15 is 9.1%.
In mortality rates for cardiovascular disease, cancer and infectious diseases, Russia ranks second highest in the world among 140 countries, behind Hungary. Another former Soviet bloc country, Latvia, is in third place.
Last year, 63,092 Russians died of lung or throat cancer, and health authorities blame 90% of the cases on smoking. In the same year, 2,355,658 died of cardiac disease, and 25% of these fatalities are blamed on smoking.
Not deterred, Solovyova's committee meets every Thursday at 2 p.m. in this town 220 miles south of Moscow to smoke for one to two hours, randomly testing all the factory's products and all the raw tobacco to be used in production.
The papirosi and filterless cigarettes that the company turns out have very high tar levels. For its Prima cigarettes, the level is 22 milligrams of tar per cigarette. There is no regulation in Russia governing the amount of tar in papirosi such as Belomorkanal. The committee members couldn't say how much tar the papirosi had but acknowledged that it's harder to reduce the tar in them.
While Western cigarette companies also have regular panel samplings of cigarettes for subjective values such as taste, their products are much lower in tar, often around the 12-milligram mark or lower, and they use machines rather than the Russian deep inhalation method to test for strength. Typically, testers don't smoke raw tobacco samples, as the Russian panels do.
"It is hard when we are tasting for more than an hour," Solovyova says. "Sometimes we take a 10-minute break to revive." The committee members avoid spicy foods on Thursdays and drink weak black tea at testing sessions to refresh their exhausted palates.
Topekha insists that the work isn't harmful and doesn't lead to disease because "tobacco leaves the body very quickly."
"According to the latest research from the Academy of Medical Science [in Russia], tobacco is useful for your body in certain quantities," he asserts. "Tar is hazardous, but nicotine is not."
Belomorkanal papirosi were launched in 1933 to commemorate the opening of the White Sea-Baltic Sea canal, a project Russians today associate with the 300,000 gulag prisoners who died building it.
Solovyova, who says her salary is a commercial secret, is the chief tobacco engineer at the factory and, when she isn't smoking, is responsible for quality control of papirosi and cigarettes, labels and boxes.
She takes her job so seriously that even off duty she smokes only Yelets tobacco factory products: Belomorkanal papirosi, Prima cigarettes made of fourth-grade tobacco and Yeletskiye filter cigarettes. Smoking the product full time, she says, improves her work on the degustation committee.
Although she says she tried her first papirosi secretly when she was 7 and found it repugnant, she took up smoking seriously when she began her studies at the tobacco institute.
During the degustation, committee members remain silent, scoring each item on detailed sheets for flavor, bitterness, acidity, the degree of irritation to the throat, the burning sensation on and around the tongue and other qualities.
Although the Yelets tobacco factory experienced some difficulties in the transition to a market economy, production has increased since the collapse of the Soviet Union--despite the invasion by Western companies that have surged into Russia, investing in many local tobacco factories or setting up their own operations.
"Not everybody has the chance to smoke expensive products," Topekha says. "Lots of people are extremely poor but can't quit smoking."
The company's heyday was in the 1960s, when the factory products were in heavy demand on the black market and security at the plant had to be tightened to prevent theft.
Anatoly Berezhnov, 69, a pensioner and former cowherd from the village of Tishanka, 325 miles southeast of Moscow, is a typical Belomorkanal smoker.
"You either eat meat or potatoes," he says of his smoking habit, comparing Western cigarettes to meat--often too expensive for many Russians--and Belomorkanal to potatoes. He took up smoking out of boredom when he was 30 and working as a cowherd, with nothing to do but stare at cattle all day.
His daily pack costs him 2 rubles, or 7 cents, but popping down to the local shop to buy the cheapest brand makes him feel rich, "because tobacco is a very difficult plant to grow. It's very hard to raise your own tobacco and cure it and roll your own cigarettes."
Berezhnov has his first daily papirosi before breakfast, "and it's good. If I didn't smoke, I'd probably live for a hundred years, but I'll probably live 10 or 15 years less than that," he says lightly.
Five years ago, Berezhnov managed to give up vodka on his doctor's advice, but he finds it much harder to quit smoking.
Like many of the factory's clients, Solovyova has been trying to cut down.
"I think the health of the nation is the key thing, but our task as producers is to make cigarettes that will cause as little harm as possible to people," says Solovyova, despite the high tar levels in the factory's cigarettes. Sounding a little prim, she adds that people should limit their intake, suggesting that less than 10 a day would be a reasonable level, though she herself smokes double that.
But in the next breath comes a rueful admission: "I'm trying to reduce the number, but it's really hard." By now she is coughing heavily.
In the United States, major tobacco companies have suffered legal setbacks in recent years, most stunningly on Friday, when jurors ordered cigarette makers to pay $144.8 billion in punitive damages to Florida smokers who became sick or died as a result of addiction to cigarette smoking.
But Solovyova and Topekha are certain that Russian manufacturers will never have to face that problem.
"It might happen in America. It would never happen here," Topekha says. "In America there are more rights for consumers than there are here."