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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Moscow? It's a Puffer's Paradise

Sometimes life is a drag.


That is an adage many expatriates literally embrace after arriving in Moscow.


Here, they are no longer viewed as pariahs for lighting up at the office, in crowded restaurants, stores, cars, airplanes and even elevators. They are no longer chastised by family and friends for ruining their health. Instead, the laws are lax, the smokes are cheap and the billboards scream, "Welcome!"


It's no wonder that many foreigners either pick up or resume smoking when they move to Russia.


Interviews with dozens of expatriate smokers reveal that for many, the motive for smoking is the same in Moscow as it is at home -- primarily job stress. What makes a difference in Russia is social isolation and the absence of constraints by the government and society.


"In the West, people have a tendency to smoke less. The social values against smoking, the pressures that come from society are even stronger than your will to stop an addiction," said Dr. Jacques Roy of Mediclub, one of four Western-style health clinics in Moscow.


"But when you come to Russia there is none of this," said Roy. "There's an absolute permissiveness to smoking. Socially, it's very acceptable."


Roy should know: After kicking the habit back home in Canada, he resumed smoking again after taking a job in Moscow.


And he's far from the only one. Neil O'Donnell, 27, a New York attorney, said he tends to quit smoking when he is living in the United States, but lapses without fail upon his return to Moscow.


"I just started smoking here because I was out with a bunch of friends who were smoking and it seemed like the thing to do," said O'Donnell. "They said, 'Be one of us.'"


Although restaurants back home either prohibit smoking entirely or set aside smoking sections, the general climate can be so antagonistic that lighting up in public often invites a confrontation.


In Moscow, on the other hand, non-smoking sections are a rarity and many popular expat hang-outs, like the Hungry Duck bar and the Starlite Diner, are places where friends can gather and smoke in peace.


"I never feel uncomfortable as a smoker here," affirmed Lawrence Freedman, a New York businessman in his early 30s. A heavy smoker, he has worked primarily as a consultant in Moscow over the course of the past four years. "I think expats come to Moscow in order to smoke," he jests. "The type-A, restless person who's more inclined to smoke would come to some place like Russia, anyway."


Even people who vowed never to smoke seem to find themselves puffing away here. "I had a friend who thought it was the most disgusting habit in the world," said Jennifer Kaplan, a 25-year-old from New Jersey. "She said, 'There's no way I'll ever do it.' Two months into her stay I saw her with a cigarette in her mouth."


Those who don't smoke sometimes say they might as well because Moscow's air quality is so bad. Indeed, someone walking down a crowded street already awash in car exhaust fumes can easily inhale second-hand smoke from any of the host of smokers strolling on the streets. "I actually feel like I smoke, too, because I live here and breathe," said Chris Boffey, 32, an attorney from Washington, D.C.


The widespread smoking habit in Russia is part of a larger trend: While smoking has declined in the West, worldwide tobacco consumption increases by 2 percent a year, with some of the greatest gains coming from Eastern Europe, China and the former Soviet Union.


On paper at least, Russia is making some initial steps toward dealing with its smoking problem.


The government currently prohibits smoking in public places such as the metro and buses. Additional laws require all domestic flights of less than two hours to be smoke free.


The Russian parliament has adopted a law limiting tobacco advertising delivered through the mass media; television ads for cigarettes are prohibited from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and print ads for locally produced cigarettes are required to carry a health warning.


But these laws are a limited foil against a barrage of advertising encouraging people to smoke.


Besides the Marlboro Man billboards plastered all over the city, the entrances of nearly every metro station are flanked by three or four elderly women hawking individual packs of cigarettes in display trays for about 5,000 rubles ($1) for Camels or 6,000 ($1.20) for Marlboros. Russian brands can cost as little as 2,000 to 3,000 rubles.


These prices are much cheaper than in the West, where many governments impose a "sin tax" on cigarettes to raise money and to try and discourage smoking. While imported cigarettes in Russia are subject to tariffs and customs duties, many are brought in through "humanitarian organizations," which are exempt from these taxes.


Meanwhile, even those who should be the most aware of the dangers of smoking are often addicted. Dr. Roy said that his clinic is located within a hospital where most of the physicians light up at every opportunity.


"Almost all the doctors smoke inside the intensive care unit," he said. "When they open the door, it's like a big smoke stack."


Russia's indifference to the dangers of smoking is bound to take a toll on the country's health. An assessment of the world's state of health, released last month by the World Health Organization and the World Bank, showed that perhaps the most salient influence over the next 25 years will be the use of tobacco.


Men in the former Soviet bloc are expected to suffer more from the effects of tobacco than men ever have in the United States, according to the 10-volume report on health changes through the year 2020. "Smoking is really the single most serious risk for poor health in society today," said Timothy Meade, the medical director at the American Medical Center.


For some, the message is getting through. Michele Giddens, 31, of Cambridge in Great Britain, quit smoking on a regular basis about five months ago. "I smoked like a chimney when I started getting used to Russia, but thought, 'This is going to kill me.' Ultimately, it actually had the reverse effect upon me," said Giddens, a banker. "It scared me, so I stopped."


"If everybody is smoking around you, why smoke?," said Alex Morales, 28, a journalist from Italy. "The pollution is such that you walk into places and they're dirty. They don't seem clean, so that also has an effect on you. You just don't want to smoke."


Alphons Walkenswaard, 31, an exporter from the Netherlands, said the dirty environs also motivate him not to assume the habit.


He notes the irony of colleagues who light up in the office corridors throughout the day, but nonetheless complain about the potential effects of radiation arising from the frequent use of computers.


Walkenswaard's wife, Lianne Wijnen, also 31, said there are daily quarrels between smokers and non-smokers in the computer design room at the advertising agency for which she works. "It's very hard to say anything about it," said Wijnen, citing the fact that one of the agency's clients is a leading cigarette manufacturer.


Kaplan, director of the Operation Smile charity group, said she quit smoking last January after a regular habit spanning five years.


"It definitely took a lot of willpower to quit here, and I'm about to relapse," she said. "It's the setting, the atmosphere, the environment.


"Smoking is like a way of coping for Russians, and it has become a way of coping for expats. I can't imagine living here my whole life. I'd get cancer. It's floating in the air."