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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Broadcasting the Perils of Smoking

Everyone has a story about cigarettes in Russia: the government meetings so clouded in smoke it was difficult to breathe, the riots over tobacco shortages in the former Soviet Union, and even the Aeroflot stewardess who directed an anxious passenger to smoke in the bathroom.

In a country that gives its seal of approval to lighting up and has become a prime target for Western cigarette makers, getting Russians to kick the habit is almost unthinkable. But beginning next month, Russians will get to watch advertisements on Russian television explaining why children should not start smoking.

The Russian-language spots were created and sponsored by Andrew Tobias, an American writer who wrote the text for "Kids Say 'Don't Smoke'", which currently is being translated into Russian by the American Cancer Society for distribution here.

"I am ashamed of how U. S. tobacco companies are dumping here", said Tobias, to explain why he was willing to personally finance the money needed for this project. "It's ironic. Once you become addicted you become a slave to tobacco. This is not freedom. This is my way of saying what America is doing is wrong".

The statistics concerning smoking in Russia are grim. About 50 million Russians smoke, making one out of every third person here addicted to nicotine, said Nikolai Trapeznikov, general director for the Russian Academy of Medical Science's Cancer Research Institute.

Tobacco is nearly the leading cause of cancer here, second only to diet, and accounting for 30 percent of all cancer cases, Trapeznikov said. Lung cancer is the single biggest cancer killer among Russian men.

"It is a big problem", Trapeznikov explained. "It is difficult to talk to people who have been smoking for 10 to 15 years. The most successful way to decrease the amount of smokers here is to provide propaganda for children. It is easier to prevent people from smoking than to get them to stop".

Tobias, who visited the former Soviet Union for the first time when he was 16, was interested in doing something to help the struggling nation. An anti-smoker champion in America, Tobias decided to try and do something which would sway kids away from smoking.

"This was a lot more interesting than writing a check for the United Way", Tobias said, adding that he put about $25, 000 of his own money toward the project. "To get prime air time in the U. S. would have cost at least $2. 5 million. This is an amazing window of opportunity. I don't understand why more companies don't advertise. It costs pennies now and it won't last'. '

Tobacco companies, however, do understand the power behind the media. Banned from American and some European airwaves, cigarette makers are plastering their message and logo throughout Russia. This is making anti-smoking advocates fume.

"I'm angry", Trapeznikov said. "I wish they wouldn't interfere in our lives and sell cigarettes elsewhere".

But tobacco makers are outpacing their opponents. Cigarette kiosks sprout up faster than the voice of the silent minority. The Russian Cancer Society has coordinated two annual smoke-outs, asking the country to stub out its butts for a day, with financial and moral support from its American counterpart and companies like McDonalds.

The institute fills its coffers completely from private donations. In fact, Trapeznikov points fingers at the Russian government for turning a blind-eye to foreign tobacco firm's media blitz.

"Our government gets a lot of tax revenue from sales of tobacco and alcohol", he said. "It is an easy way to get money for the budget which is why they are not fighting against it",

Trapeznikov hopes that Russia follows in America's footsteps. But he is realistic and knows that it is a long way off.

"America paid attention to information about smoking from the press and media", he said. "Our media is not so well educated. It is not a democracy yet". '

So Trapeznikov applauds when individuals like Tobias enter the picture.

"Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death", said Tobias. "Maybe this campaign will lead people in the health ministry to run their own program. For now, if 10, 000 kids -- or even 1, 000 -- don't become smokers, I've relieved them of a lifetime of economic hardship and health problems".