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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Slowest Smokers

For MT
Twenty men are smoking to win, the air thick with fumes and concentration. It's only a training session, but their version of the Olympics is looming: 3 grams of tobacco, a pipe, and however many hours they can last without relighting.

"It's half way between an art and a sport," said TV director Sergei Kaminsky, 37, who holds the Russian record for slow pipe smoking -- about 2 hours 40 minutes.

A clutch of hopefuls from his Moscow pipe club, the Tobacco Collegium (http://tabak-, is heading to Samara in June, hoping to be crowned king -- or queen -- of the slow smokers. This sport kills, but that's irrelevant -- it's the high point of the smoking calendar. This year, though, something has dampened their excitement.

In March, a group of State Duma deputies proposed smoke-free areas in public dining facilities, a smoking ban on all flights, and severe restrictions on boats, trains and in the waiting rooms at bus and train stations.

Anyone caught violating the rules would face a fine of about 100,000 rubles (just over $3,850).

The health of passive smokers aside, Tobacco Collegium members are not impressed.

"The heroes of my youth were all Americans with cigarettes, and now it's the end," said Ivan Pervokov, 31. "It's absurd." He added that he wouldn't visit Italy and Ireland on principle because of smoking bans enacted there.

Smoking "is no more harmful than living in a metropolis," Kaminsky proclaimed. "To breathe on the streets of Moscow is no less dangerous."

About 65 percent of Russian men and 23 percent of Russian women smoke, according to World Health Organization data from 2005, the last year for which data were available. For comparison, about 30 percent of British men and 28 percent of British women smoked. Dmitry Ivanov of Business Analytica, a market research company, said the growth in the number of Russian smokers had continued since then.

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
Smokers gather at a downtown restaurant to puff on pipes and cigars in peace.

Around 375,000 Russians die every year of smoking-related diseases, chief epidemiologist Gennady Onishchenko said last year.

Though pipe smokers traditionally don't inhale, they're not immune from illnesses, said Michael Cummings of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.

"Cigarettes are more a cause of lung cancer, while pipes are linked more to head and neck cancers. ... Pipe smoking can also be highly addictive," he said.

As if the ban weren't irritating enough for the pipe smokers, experts doubt the proposed changes will have much of an effect on people's health. Geoffrey Fong, head investigator on a team researching smoking legislation at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said providing nonsmoking areas in restaurants was a waste of time.

"Physics doesn't work like that," he said. "Smoke from one area travels and dissipates in the entire space -- it's definitely ineffective. No-smoking areas should have separate ventilation."

As for the plane ban, Fong said it's "a no-brainer."

The pipe competition will take place, no matter what's going on in the Duma.

Grigory Tambulov / For MT
Over 50 competitors are expected and will sit 10 to a table with judges who make sure pipes are still lit. Contestants have five minutes to prepare the tobacco, and a minute of preparatory smoking.

Doping scandals aren't a problem at pipe tournaments, though entrants have been known to conceal an extinguished pipe. There are rarely injuries, but there's a risk of long-term problems like gum disease.

Pipe smoking lost out to cheap alternatives such as Belomor papirosy and Prima cigarettes during Soviet times, however there's since been a renaissance, with four pipe clubs in Moscow and others across the country. Members hoard pipes -- some have more than 100 -- and exotic tobaccos with overtones of chocolate, coffee and pineapple.

"People who have smoked for a long time get a picture in their head" when trying different kids of tobacco, said Zhan Kamilzhu, 38. One brand reminds him of a painting by the symbolist Mikhail Vrubel, and another smells like a man's tobacco, he said.

In April, puffing club members attended the unveiling of a statue of Sherlock Holmes, himself smoking a pipe, beside the British Embassy.

Many of the group's pipe smokers formerly smoked cigarettes, and try to convince cigarette smokers to switch. Comparing pipes to cigarettes is like comparing the exclusive Pushkin Cafe to McDonald's, one member insisted.

"Not every smoker is ready to move to a pipe. You have to arrive at it morally -- you have to be mature enough," Kaminsky said.