Lights Out: Exploring Perceptions & Stereotypes of Russian Smoking Legislation

Belomorkanal, a Russian cigarette brand (Photo credit: Jorge Campos).

By Katherine Schroeder, master’s candidate in Stanford University’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau International Data Base for 2007, Russia ranked 164 out of 226 globally in overall life expectancy. Russia was below Bolivia, South America’s poorest (and least healthy) country and lower than Iraq and India, but somewhat higher than Pakistan. For females, the Russian Federation life expectancy was not as high as in Nicaragua, Morocco, or Egypt. For males, it was in the same league as that of Cambodia, Ghana, and Eritrea. The transition from socialized medicine to a partially privatized system after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union caused weakened public health and inconsistent quality of care, with mortality rates varying greatly across both income and gender divides. Russians are notorious for alcohol abuse, and one of the first public health problems that usually comes to mind is a vodka obsession; however, smoking has been one the most devastating public health problems facing Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union.

In fact, the level of tobacco use in Russia is among the highest in the world, according to the World Health Organization’s 2009 Global Adult Tobacco Survey. From 1991 to 2013, every public location in Russia from bars to street corners facilitated the nearly 60 percent of men who routinely smoked across the country. Nearly everyone had a pack of cigarettes in their hand, and the smell of stale smoke was ubiquitous from Moscow to the far Eastern corner of the country. Worse still, of adults who smoked, an estimated 86 percent consumed a minimum of 17 cigarettes per day.

No smoking signs in the Moscow airport (Photo credit: Katherine Schroeder).

Starting in 2013, the air in Russia began to clear. Motivated by the presidential regime, the country initiated a series of strict anti-smoking regulations. This included rules that prevented smoking in public locations, warning pictures on cigarette packets, a total ban on tobacco advertisements in public locations, and a government-funded advertisement campaign against smoking that took place on social media and billboards. The Russian Ministry of Health claims the campaign is working, at least somewhat. Smoking rates for children aged 13–15 dropped to 9.3 percent in 2015, down from 25.4 percent in 2004, and it is now possible to return from a Russian bar without reeking of cigarette smoke. Yet these numbers do not tell the complete story. Have people’s attitudes towards smoking changed because of this legislation? Furthermore, what insight into the impervious Russian regime can we garner from this policy?

These were some of the questions I sought to answer when I traveled to Russian cities Ufa and Moscow to gather data for my master’s thesis. My goals for the trip were simple: to collect student interviews on smoking perceptions and the new legislation, as well as observe the ways that people either followed or disobeyed the strict rules around smoking. Not only are college students an easy group to access, they were also one of the firsts groups affected by a 2013 federal ban on smoking within 100 meters of an educational institution.

While my Russian language knowledge was enough for me to hold a conversation, I was faced with some significant challenges during my data collection process. Many of the twenty students I spoke with were a little confused why I was worried about smoking, and instead thought I should study a more “political” question in Russia. Others did not view smoking as a problem in Russia, in part because of the plethora of other public health concerns. Despite the skepticism, I discovered some illuminating information.

While most of the students had different opinions on the risks of smoking, there was overwhelming consistency in the view that smoking was worse for women. Not only were female smokers viewed as less healthy than their male counterparts, but students also expressed concern over the ways smoking challenged traditional feminine ideals. One girl explained that nobody knew she had started smoking, not even her closest friends. She described how she smoked alone during her breaks at work so nobody would see her. Other women commented about the negative impacts of smoking on their appearance. “I hate it, it changes the smell of my perfume,” a girl told me, frustrated at her inability to quit. Men, despite the disproportionate mortality burden they face, were instead eager to admit that the smoking ban had not altered their behavior. “They can’t tell me where to smoke, it will never work,” laughed one of my male participants, echoing an attitude shared by many of his peers.

People smoking outside a Moscow cafe next to a no smoking sign (Photo credit: Katherine Schroeder).

While my work was only a case study of students across Russia, the gender divide and lack of policy compliance I observed suggest that while there might be improvements in smoking prevention, Russia is nowhere near its European peers, where smoking averages rest around 28 percent as of 2015. I hope to frame these results within a historical context by drawing connections with the anti-alcohol campaigns used during the perestroika period of the 1980s, as well as gender politics in Soviet and post-Soviet space. My time in Russia helped me see that there is still work to be done.

Katherine Schroeder received funding to travel to Russia through the Global Perspectives Grant, which funds graduate student research abroad.