Cabinet Agrees to Tobacco Convention

The Cabinet on Thursday backed further efforts to battle one of Russia's most unhealthy addictions -- smoking -- by giving the go-ahead to a total ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorships.

The bill approved by the Cabinet in its Thursday session clears the way for Russia to join a UN tobacco control convention requiring members to take these steps within five years of signing on.

Current laws forbid outdoor, radio and television advertising for tobacco, but major international firms that dominate the domestic market, such as British American Tobacco, run ads in glossy magazines, the metro and are heavily involved in sponsorships.

British American Tobacco most recently helped organize an art exhibition tat the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. Promoters often hand out cigarettes to passersby in busy locations.

Accession to World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will come if and when the bill is passed in the State Duma and is signed by the president.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, whose United Russia party holds an overwhelming majority in the chamber, has already signaled his support for the bill.

"I personally don't smoke," he said. "I think accession to the convention is absolutely the right thing to do."

The convention also requires that member countries raise taxes on cigarettes in order to discourage consumption. Russia currently charges a token 3 percent tax on tobacco production, compared with some 50 percent in Western Europe, said Azam Buzurukov, the WHO's national tobacco-control officer in Moscow. The cheapest cigarette brand costs a mere 6 rubles (25 cents) per pack in central Russia, he said.

The convention binds governments to restrict smoking in public places, a measure that many West European countries adopted over the past year, with the latest bans hitting French cafes, hotels and clubs on Jan.1.

It also tells member states to require producers to remove words like "light" and "mild" from packaging, which should also bear larger health warnings. In an effort to reduce supply, the document also calls for a crackdown on counterfeit products.

The WHO hailed the government's decision. "We are positively thrilled," said Buzurukov. "It would have been great if it had happened even earlier."

According to the WHO web site, Angola and Uganda, for example, both ratified the document last year.

Galina Sakharova, deputy director of the government's Pulmonology Research Institute, attributed the delay to heavy lobbying by the tobacco industry and a government reshuffle in 2004, a year after the convention was opened.

Russia has attracted significant investment from tobacco companies in recent years as they looked to make up for markets where tight anti-smoking regulations had come into effect, including neighboring Ukraine.

British American Tobacco, a leading domestic producer, said Thursday that it supported Russia's efforts to enter the convention, but that it expected that government decisions about regulating the industry would be balanced.

"Every country is an individual case, and practical decisions aimed at reducing the effect of tobacco consumption on health may vary significantly," company spokesman Alexander Lyuty said in an e-mailed statement.

The government's health watchdog, the Federal Consumer Protection Service, said in November that 65 percent of Russian men and 30 percent of women smoke. Some 400,000 people died in 2005 from smoking-related illnesses, according to government statistics released last year. In 2000, the government recorded 340,000 such deaths.