BEHAVIOR

Nicotine rush

Western tobacco firms thrive in Russia

July 26 1993
BEHAVIOR

Nicotine rush

Western tobacco firms thrive in Russia

July 26 1993

Nicotine rush

BEHAVIOR

Western tobacco firms thrive in Russia

The Marlboro Man is riding tall in the saddle in Russia. While in Canada and other Western countries antismoking campaigns have made the nicotine habit about as socially appealing as spitting on the sidewalk, cigarette markets are still expanding in the East—igniting a nicotine rush by international tobacco firms eager to place their brands on former Soviet territory. With an estimated 70 million smokers—one-quarter of the population—the old union sometimes resembles one vast kurilka, or smoking room. And Western brands that are from two to four times as expensive as local cigarettes, which cost about 25 cents for a pack of 20, have become popular as status symbols. Said Michael Parsons, a spokesman for Philip Morris International, which, with Marlboro, has the most popular Western brand in the former Soviet Union: ‘We are excited by the possibilities in what, after the United States and China, is the world’s third-largest cigarette market.”

Russians and other former Soviet citizens consume 350 billion cigarettes yearly, closing in on the more than 500 billion smoked in the United States. International firms are buying and upgrading run-down cigarette factories to see that locally grown and packaged versions of their brands will go up in smoke when Russians reach for a cigarette. Taking advantage of the fact that tobacco advertising restrictions in the former union no longer apply, they are splashing their signs for Camels and other Western brands on buses, billboards and sidewalk kiosks in Moscow and other cities. There is only slight opposition to a foreign invasion that, through imports or local investment, has now seized almost 20 per cent of the Russian market. Small and poorly financed, the antismoking groups lack the political influence needed to counteract the torrent of advertising.

Last September, in fact, the Russian health ministry could not persuade finance officials of the need for a $2,000 information campaign on the dangers of smoking—even though government statistics show that some 500,000 Russians succumb yearly to lung cancer and other smoking-related illnesses. A subsequent appeal to Russian President Boris Yeltsin—a nonsmoker who dislikes smoking in his presence—also ended in failure. According to health ministry spokesman Reshat Khalikov, Yeltsin’s aides declined to forward a ministry letter seeking the president’s support for the stalled anti-

smoking program. The aides, said Khalikov, maintained that the matter was not important enough for Yeltsin’s attention.

In the face of such indifference, antismoking campaigners have had to settle for such small achievements as state television’s voluntary ban on cigarette ads until 10 p.m.—when impressionable younger viewers are likely to be in bed. In similarly modest fashion, the hosts of a TV program called Medicine for All asked viewers to suggest antismoking messages for No Tobacco Day on May 31. The

winning slogan, from a woman who recently broke a 20-year pack-a-day habit: “Only a nonsmoker can call herself a real woman.”

But that message and the terse advisory that has appeared on Soviet cigarette packs since 1981—“The ministry of health warns that smoking is dangerous for your health”— are overwhelmed by a new flood of TV, radio and print ads. During the Communist era, a Kremlin decree sternly forbade any cigarette advertising, but legislation in that area is now practically non-existent in Russia. Said the health ministry’s Khalikov: We need something similar now, as that decree, unfortunately, is no longer valid.”

Certainly, Moscow’s city government has

sporadically threatened to ban the clutter of billboards, bus shelter posters and other cigarette ads that have spread rapidly throughout the Russian capital. But officials acknowledge that they are far more likely to impose limits on the number of signs that may appear on each block than to ban them outright. Still, the rumors of a ban have evoked strong reactions from the representatives of foreign tobacco firms, some of whom have been on the losing side of similar battles in other countries. “The government should not have the right to tell people what they are going to see,” declared Bruce Macdonald, the director of BBDO Marketing, a New York City-based firm that is helping British-American Tobacco Ltd. (Benson & Hedges, Lucky Strike) penetrate the Russian market. Added Philip Morris spokesman Parsons: “Certainly, we don’t want to see anything comparable to the situation in Canada where cigarettes are still legal but tobacco companies cannot advertise their products.”

Besides, in an atmosphere of smoking tolerance, Moscow and other cash-strapped lo-

cal administrations are clearly reluctant to forgo newfound revenues generated by the street posters. Russia, after all, is still a country where nonsmoking sections in restaurants are rarities and no-smoking signs are routinely ignored. Public figures smoke their way through television appearances—often in the company of interviewers who are themselves puffing away on fashionable foreign brands. Indeed, despite his sometimes anti-Western views on other matters, Russian Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi candidly acknowledges that Marlboro—at about $1 a pack—is his preferred brand.

MALCOLM GRAY in Moscow