RIA Novosti interviews Andrey Dyomin, President of Russian Public Health Association, on international No Smoking Day.
Question: November 19 is international No Smoking Day. Has any progress been made over the past twelve months with regard to the no-smoking policy? What’s new in this area?
Answer: We have been implementing the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Also, in Russia, there has been an important shift in the public discussion of smoking, as officials as well as the general public wish to know more about tobacco producers: who they are, what they want and what goals they have.
Russia’s Public Chamber has published a report that emphasized the need to monitor tobacco producers, insisting on their transparent operation and on tobacco industry denormalization.
This is an important shift from the earlier focus on smoking as a social phenomenon without considering the manufacturer’s role in the tobacco epidemic.
Smoking’s hazards to human health have been in the public focus since the 1970s. Later smoking was highlighted as a major risk factor, then it was tied to demographic problems. The idea of blaming the producers as those who make huge profits on smoking emerged only recently – Russians have now realized that the only side benefiting from smoking is the foreign tobacco industry, as 95% of tobacco production in Russia is controlled by foreign companies.
Q: But why is this so? What are the reasons?
A: The reason is that foreign tobacco companies have strategically taken advantage of two major crises in modern Russian history – the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 1998 default. They reinforced their positions in Russia during those periods. More than half (66%) of the foreign investment in Russia’s tobacco industry went to St. Petersburg, the Leningrad Region and Moscow. These three areas account for 80% of the profits from tobacco sales.
Q: Can you cite any statistics on how many smokers there are in Russia? Is their number growing or decreasing?
A: About smoking in Russia, I can give you the following figures. According to various reliable estimates, smoking is seriously affecting the demographic situation in Russia: 350,000-400,000 people die annually from smoking related disorders. According to WHO data, 72% of men are smokers, 30% of women, and 50% of children and teenagers. This year, a small downward trend is possible. But this does not mean that the problem has been resolved or that our efforts have been successful.
I would say the Public Chamber’s new focus on the impact of smoking on the country’s demographics is a positive step.
Q: Why is the number of smokers decreasing in other countries, and more people support a healthy lifestyle?
A: This is directly linked to the resistance put up by tobacco producers, who lobby their own interests. In Russia, for example, tobacco excise taxes are one-seventeenth of European or American rates. This is why our country is seen as a threat to many adjacent countries, because of cheap cigarette smuggling.
Another reason is advertizing. Foreign companies spend $1 billion a year to advertise their products in Russia, while the social advertizing budget is only $20 million. These figures are not comparable.
Q: Can you suggest a solution?
A: I think the only policy which could check tobacco industry growth is Russia is nationalizing the industry. It should also be subject to tight public supervision. The excise tax should be raised and tobacco advertising restricted.
Another useful policy would be to discredit the tobacco business as a career. As of today, many young people consider employment in this industry a good career opportunity. Salaries at tobacco companies are high – for example, a PR vice president at a large company can make 500,000 rubles ($17,500) a month.
In fact, many government officials are aware of the problem. But tobacco companies scare them with social unrest if people cannot buy their cigarettes.
Personally, I think the best idea is to nationalize the industry, and put it under the Healthcare Ministry’s control, the way it is done in Finland. As long as tobacco producers call the tune, we cannot do much to remedy the situation.