Smoking Bill Breaks UN Vow, Critics Say

Health and consumer rights activists are up in arms over the contents of a bill regulating the tobacco industry, saying it contradicts a UN convention that Russia signed in April.

The bill, drafted by an association of tobacco companies, is scheduled to be passed by the State Duma in a third and final reading Wednesday.

The legislation would allow cigarette producers to continue to use the words "light," "super light" or "low tar" on packaging, something the activists and a UN representative said Tuesday is in direct conflict with the convention.

The Association of Tobacco Producers, which proposed the new rules, denied that it was in breach of international commitments. Foreign members of the group, such as British American Tobacco, overwhelmingly dominate the national market.

The World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control commits member states to require producers to remove any term from packaging that "directly or indirectly creates the false impression that a particular tobacco product is less harmful than others."

While still allowing descriptions like "light" or "super light" to remain, the bill was recently amended to require tobacco companies to include warnings that these terms do not mean that the product is less harmful on packaging in lettering of the same size as the offending terms.

Opponents to the bill remained unsatisfied.

"Such complex sentences are difficult to take in," said Azam Buzurukov, the WHO's national tobacco-control officer in Moscow. "They won't have any effect."

"It doesn't quite comply with what the WHO recommends," he added.

WHO guidelines for implementing the convention explicitly stipulate that member countries should prohibit terms like "light." But the guidelines are not part of the convention.

Allowing the tobacco industry to write rules for itself is "shameful" for Russia, said Dmitry Yanin, chief of the International Confederation of Consumer Associations.

He said the Moscow-based rights group would challenge the rules in court if they become law. The confederation has joined forces with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, to lobby the government on the issue.

The Federal Consumer Protection Service has made an unsuccessful effort to block the labeling provisions in question, sending proposals to the Duma through the Health and Social Development Ministry, said Lyubov Voropayeva, a spokeswoman for the service, declining further immediate comment.

Titled "Technical Regulations for Tobacco Products," the bill is part of a larger legislative drive to upgrade industrial standards inherited from the Soviet Union — an effort that included passage by the Duma of new regulations for dairy producers and other sectors in recent months.

The Tobacco Producers Association defended the bill, with group director Vadim Zhelnin saying descriptions like "light" weren't misleading or directly prohibited by the WHO convention.

Critics of the bill were not being consistent, he said.

"On the one hand, they insist on reducing the tar and nicotine content in cigarettes," he said. "On the other, they try to make it difficult to market cigarettes with a lower nicotine content. Where's the logic?"

Despite being authored by tobacco producers, the bill does require cigarette packages to carry two large health warnings in black letters on a white background. The warnings are much stronger than current examples, which typically state that smoking is hazardous to your health.

Under the bill, every pack must warn that "Smoking Kills" on one of the broader sides of the pack and run one of 12 other phrases on the reverse. The other warnings include "Smoking Can Cause a Slow and Painful Death" and "Smoking Causes a Strong Addiction, Don't Start Smoking."