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Smoking culture lingers, killing Russians slowly

MOSCOW, October 27 (RIA Novosti)-On a lazy Sunday afternoon, at a smoky café in central Moscow, Polina Stepanova, 25, savours one more cigarette, as she contemplates the prospect of a New Year without a nicotine fix to accompany her cup of coffee.

Smoldering Cigarettes in Ash TrayLike many smokers worldwide, she is trying to quit.

But in a land where people light up pretty much at will in restaurants, bars, nightclubs and offices, it is a daunting reality.

"A cup of coffee calls for a cigarette," Stepanova says as she takes another drag. The café, packed with Muscovites puffing away, makes it hard for her to resist. "Obviously everyone in this café had the same thought as me," she says.

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. Bans on smoking in public have already been enforced in several European countries, even if the law is loosely enforced.

In Italy, nearly as many people smoke now as before Rome passed a law in 2005 prohibiting smoking in cafés, according to a poll conducted by the Italian Health Ministry.

Spain banned smoking in public places in 2006, but the law contains loopholes. In practice, people can smoke in most bars, and most restaurants allow smoking for fear of a backlash from consumers.

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 (who didn't want her surname disclosed).

"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."

This year, 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."

"The government wants to change a lot, but it's not going to be that easy in this country," says Batog. "There's a lot of corruption, and a lot of it just depends on peoples' desire to change something in their own life."

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