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Russia butting out

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti economic commentator Vlad Grinkevich) - Tobacco companies and Russian smokers are in for hard times - on April 11, the State Duma ratified the framework convention of the World Health Organization (WHO) on tobacco control.

Tobacco producers will have to pay higher taxes and give up smoking ads. Smokers should get ready to pay more for cigarettes and expect a ban on smoking in public places.

The WHO adopted this convention in May 2003 at its 56th session. Today, it has been joined by 172 countries, including the European Union (EU), but not all countries implement it with the same zeal. Spain, the Netherlands, Norway and Italy have banned smoking in public places, whereas Australia, Brazil, Canada, Singapore and Thailand have so far limited themselves to frightening pictures about the risks of smoking on cigarette packs.

Russian officials believe that the convention fully meets Russia's national interests. Olga Borzova, who chairs the Duma's committee for health protection, quoted a sad statistic - every year, up to half a million Russians die of smoking-related diseases.

Rospotrebnadzor, Russia's consumer rights regulator, estimates that in the last 20 years the number of smokers has risen by 440,000. Some 65% of men and more than 30% of women smoke in Russia. Doctors insist that a quarter of regular smokers will die prematurely.

Today, the Ministry of Health and Social Development and law-makers are together drafting a national strategy of tobacco control to meet the convention's main requirements.

Borzova said it may be adopted before the end of this year.

Under the convention, tobacco producers have to stop using such words as "light" or "mild" in the titles of cigarettes, which create the illusion that some brands are harmless. No less than one third of a pack should contain information about the risks of smoking. Moreover, these words should be illustrated by frightening pictures such as cancerous lungs or tobacco-stained teeth. Ads will be restricted to a minimum, if not banned altogether. Taxes on tobacco products will be raised, which will results in price hikes; duty-free sale of tobacco will be prohibited or restricted, and smoking in public places banned.

Strange as this may seem, tobacco companies are not scared by most of the measures. After all, some of the convention's provisions are either already being carried out or will be implemented in the near future. Tobacco ads are banned on television, radio, on the streets, and in almost all public places. Now cigarettes are advertized only in the press and shops.

The Duma is about to adopt regulations on tobacco production, requiring tobacco companies to allocate no less than 30% of the pack's surface to warnings about the dangers of smoking, as the convention requires.

But tobacco producers are emphatically against a complete ban on advertising, advocated by some MPs.

Anatoly Vereshchagin, who is in charge of communications at JT International Russia, said: "An immediate and complete ban on advertising will be an inadequate and disproportionate measure, which will not help reduce smoking."

A representative of another big producer said that smoking ads "do not promote smoking but simply help switch smokers' attention from one brand to another."

In other words, this ban will reduce competition in the market rather than the number of smokers. But the authorities are unlikely to be too tough. President Vladimir Putin said way back in 2001 that a complete ban on tobacco ads runs counter to the Constitution.

Participants in the tobacco market believe that if a full ban on smoking in public places is not accompanied by the allocation of special smoking areas, it will primarily hit the owners of restaurants and bars rather than tobacco producers.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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