MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia risks igniting the ire of its 44 million smokers when it extends bans on cigarettes to restaurants and bars on Sunday as part of a battle to break the habit in one of heaviest-smoking countries in the world.
The ban is the latest measure under President Vladimir Putin to promote healthy lifestyles - which goes hand in hand with his support for what he calls traditional values - and stem a population decline that began after the Soviet breakup.
Putin’s government hopes to reduce the share of the adult population that smokes from 39 percent, one of the highest rates in the world, to 25 percent by 2020.
“Thanks to this law people understand that smoking is bad and that smoking around others is a crime,” said Sergei Kalashnikov, head of the Public Health Committee in the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament.
“The point has been forcefully made and people will be punished for ignoring the law,” said Kalashnikov, who represents the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party.
Russia began introducing tougher controls on smoking last summer, banning smoking in government buildings and advertising by tobacco companies.
From June 1, smoking will also be banned in bars, restaurants, hotels and on trains, and cigarettes will no longer be on display in shops or sold in kiosks. Many other nations already have similar restrictions.
“We relied on U.S. and European research for this law. In this respect, we completely trust our colleagues in the West,” Kalashnikov said, adding that foreign tobacco firms - which control about 90 percent of the $20 billion Russian market - had lobbied intensely against the law.
International tobacco companies, whose dwindling sales in Western markets have been offset for years by hefty Russian consumption, say the new rules go too far.
Alexander Lyuty, communications director at British American Tobacco in Moscow, said data showing that Russia’s tobacco market shrank 7 percent last year failed to take account of surging contraband imports from other Soviet republics.
“Cigarette prices are rising faster than consumers’ disposable incomes. This triggers an inflow of contraband and reduces sales of legal cigarettes in the market,” he said.
Kalashnikov said the government was planning a further hike in excise taxes, which have already risen sharply this year, to increase pressure on smokers to quit.
Excise taxes typically account for 60 percent of the price of a pack of cigarettes in Europe, while in Russia they still only make up 17 percent of the cost, he said.
Roman Grinchenko, an analyst at Investcafe, said tougher regulation was likely to apply “significant pressure” to tobacco producers but that its financial impact was hard to quantify.
Bar and restaurant owners are fiercely opposed, fearing bans will cut business. Egor, 24, a barman working in central Moscow, said: “People are going to think: Why should I go to bars if they’re not going to let me smoke there?”
According to a recent poll by independent Russian pollster Levada Centre, 82 percent of Russian restaurateurs expect customer numbers to drop from Sunday.
The World Health Organization says that smoking kills 5.4 million people worldwide every year. But for Russia’s hardened smokers, the ban is nothing short of discrimination.
“I can understand those who want to prevent young people smoking. But when a law is passed which is in essence a law on the genocide of smokers - that I can’t understand,” said Mikhail Barshchevsky, a lawyer, at a recent smokers’ rights conference.
“The law is senseless and won’t be observed.”
Reporting by Alexander Winning; editing by Steve Gutterman and Alister Doyle