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Russia: Thank you for not smoking

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The Russian government is obsessed with promoting healthy lifestyles. But with its typical heavy-handedness, it has decided that citizens’ health is just another state resource. Русский

Кирилл Кобрин
14 March 2016

I’m holding two cartons of Marlboro Gold made in different countries. One has instructions that read: “Smoking causes lethal throat cancer”, “Smoking causes real addiction – don’t start smoking”, “Smoking causes heart attacks and cell necrosis”, “Smoking during pregnancy negatively affects the health of your child”, “Smoking seriously harms you and those around you”, “Protect your children: don’t let them breathe in second-hand smoke”, and finally “Smoking can kill.”

Packs from the other carton feature a more laconic warning: “Smoking kills”.

This difference is fundamental — and it makes sense. The first carton was made in the Czech Republic. The second came from Russia.

At first glance, it would seem that we are dealing with the same phenomenon — the brand of cigarettes and the noble intentions of governments who care about their citizens’ health.

We’re not talking about the quality of tobacco here, but the quality of governments’ “care for its citizens” — where it comes from and where it’s leading us.

The glamorous world of tobacco

In the last 50 years, the world has changed so immensely that what was possible decades ago no longer seems possible now.

I recently watched a clip on Facebook. It was from a 1960s Soviet film. The hero is sick, tonsilitis or the flu. He lies in an austere bed, in a room in austere conditions, where there is nothing but a austere chair and table (on the table there is an austere jug of water and a glass, nothing else). Tulle curtains at the half-open window sway gently in a spring-like breeze.

The 20th century was a world permeated by tobacco smoke down to the very last thread

The hero is suffering physically. I won’t rule out he is also suffering morally — everyone suffers in Soviet films. A friend comes to visit. The friend moves the chair closer to the bed. The friend sits down, takes out a cigarette and lights up. The sick guy also lights up. They smoke in silence, pointedly.

I can just imagine how much it stinks in that room. You’ve got a guy who’s sick and probably hasn’t showered in days and the stench of those poisonous Soviet cigarettes, so different from the soft, even elegant smell of modern Marlboros. I am also thinking of how much it sucks to be the sick guy, who had just been coughing. I am thinking of his throat and lungs. I am also thinking that, to paraphrase the poet Lermontov, we are not heroes. Not these heroes, anyway – and thank God for that.

The same things were happening in films made on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Everyone smoked like chimneys — women, men, granddads, grandmas. In the USSR, incidentally, women with cigarettes invited disapproval. There was something depraved in the sight of a lady (let alone a young woman) smoking — a challenge to patriarchal, or even Soviet norms.

Only in the mid-1980s did the USSR make peace with the gender equality of nicotine. Then the USSR came to an end a few years later. But this sort of gender equality remained.

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Man buys cigarettes in Moscow. (c) Maxim Blinov / VisualRIAN. All rights reserved.Everyone smoked in western films, be it Marcello Mastroianni or Anouk Aimee, Jean-Paul Belmondo or Sophia Loren, Marlon Brando or Jane Birkin. Clint Eastwood had his trademark smirk that he could do without taking the cigarillo out of his mouth. Then there was Serge Gainsbourg, of course, although he couldn’t get on the screen in the USSR. Off the top of my head, I can only remember one prominent western movie star who didn’t smoke in those days – Woody Allen, who tried to inhale a few times, but it was as embarrassing as when Alvy sneezed into the cocaine in Annie Hall.

Thousands of texts have been written about how the cigarette was a symbol of masculinity, and intellect, and dandyism, and sexual liberation, and God knows what else. There was even an old Soviet song, “Let’s smoke, comrade”, which reflected the ethos of wartime brotherhood, crowned with a tobacco leaf like a laurel. It must be said, though, that the therapeutic effects of nicotine during extreme situations involving suffering and the presence of death were obscured in mass culture on both sides of the Iron Curtain, which is a pity.

We know that tobacco can help deal with pangs of hunger. Victims of the Leningrad blockade found their survival in tobacoo (read the journals of Lidiya Ginzburg on the subject). At war and in conditions where one had to perform difficult physical labour, tobacco became a symbol of friendship, brotherhood, comradeship, and so on — however, it did not become medicine from hunger, cold or loneliness.

Yes, loneliness. This theme as related to smoking is especially important. A lonely person greedily inhales cigarette smoke in his twilit room, by a village hut, or on the street, leaning against the parapet on some embankment — this is the representation of the romantic, in some sense even existential character, one of the most important characters of the 20th century.

What you smoked became in itself a marker of your social standing, a symbol of class-based society

Finally, what you smoked became in itself a marker of your social standing, a symbol of class-based society. It was cheap cigarettes and reeking roll-ups vs. cigars, perfumed cigarillos and thin ladies’ cigarettes. This is the way the conflict between the haves and have-nots was portrayed in pop culture (and in culture in general).

Pipe-smokers were a separate phenomenon. Smoking a pipe didn’t say much about status. It spoke about one’s profession and character. Professors and sailors smoked pipes, Sherlock Holmes and Maigret, Stalin the dictator and Magritte the painter, as well as Soviet actors and writers who were interested in seeming old-fashioned or chic in a particular way.

The 20th century was a world permeated by tobacco smoke down to the very last thread, in which only children running in serene meadows and sports enthusiasts in white undershirts were allowed to breathe fresh air.

Leonid Brezhnev smoked, Lyudmila Gurchenko smoked, Richard Nixon smoked, Charlie Parker smoked, Agatha Christie smoked. To be granted allowance to not partake in smoking was an uneasy feat — Proust had to use his asthma as an excuse, Kafka his tuberculosis. Although the tubercular crowd also smoked. One recall Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

A new world war

That entire world collapsed in as little as a quarter of a century. Or not even collapsed — it just evaporated, to the point where the smoking world of 1965 seems more distant than the pre-Columbus, non-smoking world circa 1465 or so.

Nowadays, people light up in movies on special occasions only — and more often in art-house cinema, as opposed to Hollywood. An advertisement with a model or some pop singer with a cigarette in her mouth causes outrage.

Smoking in public places is pretty much banned. In most countries, cigarettes are sold almost under-the-table – cigarette kiosks are covered up in the big supermarkets. There are serious discussions of getting rid of all distinct markings on cigarette packs, leaving the name of the brand and a health warning against a white background. An entire culture of tobacco-related advertising and marketing is getting ready to die.

The majority of Earth’s population has not been drafted into the war against tobacco, and their governments are not particularly eager to fight for their citizens’ health

Besides purely administrative measures, economic and social measures are also in place – they don’t just affect your wallet or your status, they’re meant to put psychological pressure on you. A pack of Marlboros in the UK can cost as much as two bottles of drinkable wine. I won’t even mention what is happening in Scandinavia in that regard.

Some people are thinking of depriving smokers of some free healthcare services, and of raising their insurance prices (in the United States, smokers already pay 15-20% more on premiums). Smokers are also stigmatised — oh, he’s a lovely person, but, you know, he smokes. 

Finally, scare tactics are employed against smokers, on cigarette packs, in particular. That’s where you’ll find photos of the horrific damage cigarettes can causes to your organs. There are wrinkly, tired faces. Horrific ulcers. Liver-coloured tumours. Every catastrophe you can possibly inflict upon the human body. For those who breeze past these blood-curdling images, there are those warning texts we discussed at the beginning.

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In 2011, the UK banned the sale of cigarettes from vending machines. (c) Oli Scarff / Getty Images. All rights reserved.At first glance, this is a universal trend — across the world, people are waging war against smoking, in different degrees of frenzy. And each battle is motivated by a seemingly commendable desire to rid people of a dangerous and expensive habit. A desire to make life better. But look closer and you’ll notice something different.

First of all, this trend is far from universal. In China and in India, people are smoking as if nothing had happened. In Brazil too, not to mention other Latin American countries. We can add southeast Asia to the list, leaving out Singapore (where you can get dragged into court for leaving a cigarette butt on the ground). I don’t even need to mention African countries, or the Middle East, or the Far East. In post-Soviet central Asia, aside from the comically sinister Uzbek regime, tobacco smoke is also regarded with indifference.

The majority of Earth’s population has not been drafted into the war against tobacco, and their governments are not particularly eager to fight for their citizens’ health. We can chalk this up to them being “uncivilised” or “un-democratic” or “backward”. But are they really “backward” when they’re already producing most of the world’s goods? That’s beside the fact that all of these assessments sound neo-colonial and even racist. No, something else is going on here.

The war against smoking has purely ideological underpinnings. And what’s especially hilarious is that regimes as different as Putin’s Russia and European and US democracies are united in this quest. Both in the west and in Russia, we are told that smoking is dangerous for the individual and society. In Russia, they also add that smoking harms the state.

This last bit hints at a particular reality that we can begin to glimpse when we consider different wordings on cigarette packs and the like.

Deviants and history

The western approach to smoking combines an ideological campaign with economic pragmatism. The battle against smoking has its roots in the 1970s, in leftist, “green” ideals as they were formed back then. A short summation of these ideals goes as follows: the modern human being, modern society, the very notion of modern humanity — they’re all deeply flawed. As if that weren’t bad enough, they also harm Nature.

Humans stopped being “themselves,” they stopped being “one with nature.” They created a bunch of factories, rejecting their own, essentially good nature in favour of cars and smokestacks. In doing so, humans betrayed Nature. This is why our main goal for today is a return to a natural, organic state of purity. 

A person with a cigarette became a symbol of the previous, modern period of history, which the west is trying to get reject of at all costs 

It was the hippies that brought this pathetic Rousseau-ism to the masses — the same people who took acid, smoked constantly, and left mounds of trash after themselves at festivals. Then the hippies grew up, and, together with their kids, came to power in Europe and the States.

Ideas of “purity,” of everything “organic,” of “a return to the self” morphed into the staples of a cultural industry, an ideology that suddenly became very profitable — both politically and economically. Take a stroll down the aisle of a supermarket and what are you greeted with? Labels that scream “organic,” “fair-trade,” “natural,” and so on. Just check out the difference in prices on products labelled this way and products that are not.

In this context, smoking became a criminal attack on the virginal purity of the human body and pure air. To refrain from smoking was to go back to being normal, and “normality” was humanity before the rise of smoking.

This ideology has one particularly amusing aspect. The western world looks upon modernity — with its industry, factories belching smoke, grinding gears, and smokers at home, in restaurants, and on the street — as an unfortunate deviation from the norm. There is something shameful in industry — and let’s just forget that the west owes its might to industry (and, of course, colonialism). Wouldn’t it be nice to transfer the annoying, stinking, loud manufacturing somewhere far away, to Burma or Vietnam, and tell smokers to go outside somewhere (just not where they can be seen)? 

A person with a cigarette became a symbol of the previous, modern period of history, which the west is trying to reject at all costs. But you can’t just force people to quit — we’re living in a democracy here! — so a whole manner of euphemisms and hints came into play.

The anti-tobacco campaign employs, besides localised administrative measures, the power of economic resources and gentle, but firm persuasion. This is why we are reading so many different warning labels on European cigarette packs, all meant to force the poor addict to consider the damage he is doing to himself and those around him. The main instrument of this campaign is putting pressure on the individual conscience.

Anti-nicotine mobilisation 

Although Russian measures against nicotine seem similar, they have different ideological motivations. 

The idea of humankind’s pure, natural state and the Original Sin of industry is absolutely alien to post-Soviet society and, especially, to post-Soviet government. Instead, the lost paradise is the USSR with its manufacturing and science that served manufacturing. Most of post-Soviet society is apathetic toward environmental problems, and think that paying attention to them is some kind of weird western extravagance — though certain pre-modern practices in everyday life are highly approved of. 

Even the Russian Orthodox Church, with its bearded conservatism, is seen as a replacement for the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, that is, as an ideological institution of the 20th century, made “modern” by today’s Russian standards. Elders and holy fools have some popularity, but the real hero here is the priest blessing a rocket launcher or a new Mercedes.

Who can argue with the thesis that “smoking is bad for you”? 

The idea of quitting smoking as a way of returning to pre-industrial “purity” is impossible to popularise in Russia. In fact, the anti-nicotine campaign here is organised from the top down, with little support from public organisations, aside from neo-Nazis and various crypto-fascists, who believe that the “Judeo-masons” are using tobacco and alcohol to “destroy the Russian people.” 

Economics doesn’t play a part here, either. Insurance-based medicine is a fiction in Russia, moreover companies don’t lose anything when it comes to treating smoking-related diseases, especially not when we look at the catastrophic damage inflicted by vodka instead. The cigarette remains an everyday accessory for a Russian citizen, regardless of social status. Only the state is at war with smoking, and here’s why. 

The Russian government is obsessed with “the people’s health” because it has its own phantom-like notions of how the people should function. Moreover, the idea of a “healthy lifestyle” is the only way that a totally corrupt and socially unjust government can show the people its caring side.

The ideology of the Russian state is more classically fascist than meets the eye. Women must give birth and raise children. Men should go to war, or should be ready to do so. Both the former and latter scenario require one to be quite healthy. Since smoking can harm health it must therefore be eliminated. Who can argue with the thesis that “smoking is bad for you”? Nobody. A bonus to one’s reputation is therefore assured. The government can take on the role of a father figure, taking care of its childlike citizens. Anyone who publicly comes out against this father figure is an enemy of “national health” and the health of every individual Russian.

Smoking is bad for you. The Russian government has happily appropriated this banality. And if it’s as simple as that, there is no need to democratically explain one’s position. Everything should be simple, uniform, and effective. Like the slogan: “Smoking kills.” 

P.S. The author has been a non-smoker for nearly 20 years. He has no personal stake in the arguments he made here.

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