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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WHO Day Drowned By Smoke

Cigarette butts piled up outside the entrance to Mayakovskaya metro station; nearby, a pair of teenagers persistently tried to bum a smoke off passersby, while some pensioners stood selling the most sought-after Western brands of cigarettes.

Only the rain dissuaded people from lighting up Wednesday with smokers continuing to puff away - completely oblivious of World No Tobacco Day, celebrated internationally May31.

Despite the lack of outward signs, No Tobacco Day and the worldwide campaign of which it is a part - organized by the World Health Organization - coincides with the Health Ministry's vigorous attempts to cut back tobacco use.

If the tobacco industry in the Unites States is seen to be on the retreat after a spate of class-action lawsuits, it is growing steadily in Eastern Europe. Attempts by local lawmakers supportive of the Health Ministry to hinder that growth were dealt a blow earlier this month when a draft law set to limit smoking in public places was voted down by the State Duma.

Few of the WHO posters depicting a typical sunset and two cowboys on horseback with the unexpected text "Bob, I've got cancer" could be seen around town. Judging by the statistics, it's unlikely they would do much good.

Deputy Health Minister Gennady Onishchenko highlighted some grim figures at a news conference last week. Russia has one of the worst smoking rates in the developed world: 72 percent of men ages 30 to 34 smoke, while the national average for all male smokers is a no less daunting 59.8 percent. Even a quarter of the nation's doctors are smokers.

The figures for young people are equally disturbing. Although just over 9 percent of women smoke, the average for women born between 1970 and 1974 is 20 percent to 25 percent.

"The situation is extremely disturbing among smoking teenagers," said Onishchenko as quoted by the Federal News Service.

He described the fight against tobacco as an "unequal struggle between the powerful and economically strong tobacco lobby ... and the modest efforts undertaken by the Health Ministry."

The unsuccessful bill, proposed by Nikolai Gerasimenko, head of the Duma's health committee, would have banned smoking in sports facilities, schools and universities, theaters, hospitals, government offices and on public transport. The draft law also aimed to ban the sale of cigarettes within 100 meters of such institutions.

Critics in the Duma said the law would destroy the local tobacco industry, but Onishchenko argues the industry is virtually all foreign-owned.

Perhaps after being burned by their U.S. experience, several major Western tobacco companies present on the local market have begun a campaign to stop the sale of cigarettes to minors.

But Onishchenko is not impressed: "I would describe this as a crocodile shedding tears as it devours its prey," he said.

One measure pushed through by the Health Ministry to take effect July 1 is an increase in the size of the health warning on cigarette packs - up to 25 percent of the large side of the pack. Another, according to Onishchenko, is a reduction in the maximum allowable tar content to 15 milligrams, from a high of 30 milligrams in Soviet times.

Onishchenko still hopes the law can be passed.

"Tobacco is not just dangerous," he said. "It really is the main cause of high mortality rates and short life expectancy in Russia."