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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Anti-Tobacco Measures Long Overdue

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A global movement is under way to reduce tobacco use -- and thereby save millions of lives each year. Unfortunately, Russia has so far chosen to remain on the sidelines in the fight against this preventable public health epidemic.

Russia is not among the 147 nations of the world who have signed and ratified the international agreement known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. After Indonesia, Russia is the most populous country not taking part in the World Health Organization treaty. Most former Soviet republics have joined. Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also have not.

The WHO treaty calls on participants to take several tried-and-true measures to curb smoking -- such as sharply increasing taxes to raise the price of cigarettes, banning tobacco ads and eliminating indoor smoking except in private homes.

This official indifference comes with tragic consequences. More than 300,000 lives are lost each year as a result of tobacco use, in a nation with a population that some demographers warn could plummet to 100 million from its current 143 million by 2050.

Russia needs to join the global movement against smoking. A good first step would be for its leaders to sign and ratify the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, Russia will be missing from the list of nations whose representatives are meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, from June 30 to July 6. Participants in the WHO conference are gathering to plan the next global strategies to combat smoking.

One focus of this year's meeting is how better to protect people from exposure to cigarettes by banning nonresidential indoor smoking. Exposure to second-hand smoke remains a serious problem, as non-smokers are still routinely subjected to the damaging health effects of inhaling other people's cigarette smoke in restaurants, bars and workplaces.

The statistics are grim: Nearly 65 percent of adult men smoke, one the highest rates in the world. Life expectancy for Russian men is 59 years. Some alarming estimates suggest that almost 50 percent of young people smoke.

But progress is being made.

Government officials, celebrities and public health advocates are uniting and speaking out as never before -- people like parliamentary leaders Boris Gryzlov and Nikolai Gerasimenko, Mayor Yury Luzhkov, singer Iosif Kobzon and actor Yevgeny Gerasimov.

Most important, President Vladimir Putin has started talking directly about the issue, a hopeful signal that the Kremlin is ready to do battle. Putin's prepared remarks were read by Gryzlov at the opening of a two-day "Tobacco or Health" forum in Moscow, just ahead of World No Tobacco Day on May 31.

Putin's words are worth putting up on a billboard or printing on every pack of cigarettes: "The damage caused by smoking is obvious, affecting not only smokers, but also the people around them and, most seriously, the young generation," Putin said. "We can only successfully address this serious issue if the state, civic organizations and the business community join forces. There is a need for more legislative measures as well as more intensive prevention and education work."

The task for all Russians is to convert this momentum into a popular movement that convinces lawmakers to make meaningful changes in public policy. Evidence suggests that the tobacco industry should in no way be part of the business community with which Putin said the others should join forces. The transnational tobacco industry has already turned into a "globalized public bad" that is shaping not only Russian, but also regional and global tobacco policies for its own benefit. Our efforts cannot be co-opted or disrupted by the foreign-dominated tobacco industry, as they have so often been in the past.

Polls demonstrate that Russians are receptive to taking the tough measures needed to curb smoking and to protecting themselves from the harmful effects of second-hand smoke.

Let's not forget that only 21 percent of Russian women smoke. That means the vast majority are non-smokers, an inconvenient fact for those who argue that smoking is an integral part of the culture.

Smokers' rights are not under threat. Smokers are free to engage in their harmful habit if they do so outside and start paying the full costs of the health burdens created by their addiction. Those who want to quit smoking should get the help they need. The issue is protecting the right of people who want to breathe clean air.

Tobacco industry sympathizers point to recent steps by the Duma to raise excise taxes on cigarettes and create partial smoking bans in restaurants and other public places. Don't be fooled. These are weak measures. Only comprehensive, 100 percent bans are effective and enforceable.

There will never be any progress on the problem if, as Gryzlov astutely observed, cigarettes remain cheaper than ice cream and more readily available.

The political will to adopt proven anti-tobacco measures will lead to a healthier Russia. There is no easier way to improve health than by reversing the dramatic toll of the tobacco epidemic. One way to start is finally to join with other nations and become part of the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

The time to act is now.

Andrei K. Demin is president of the Russian Public Health Association, a professor at the I.M. Sechenov Moscow Medical Academy and the coordinator of the National Coalition for a Tobacco Free Russia.