When I first came to Russia in 1998, it was like stepping back into 1970s America where smoking was concerned. Smoke-free public places were unheard of. They still smoked in planes. Little by little this has been changing. Microprint warning labels began to appear on cigarette packs. Cigarette advertising on TV disappeared. Awareness of the hazards of smoking was heightened.
Recently the Russian government has launched what has to be one of the more aggressive anti-smoking campaigns in the world. In stores, above every cigarette display, is written in large, black capital letters that the most near-sighted can’t miss: “SMOKING KILLS.”
If that doesn’t make you think twice about buying, you then see the same message on the front of your proud new purchase. It kind of spoils the aesthetics of the package, wouldn’t you agree? That’s undoubtedly the point in part.
The smoker who turns his pack around so as not to dwell on death is faced with some other, more specific message, in equally large type. These range from assertions about what smoking certainly does to statements about what smoking possibly does. “Smoking causes lung cancer.” “Smoking raises the risk of death from heart and lung disease.” And so on.
In case smokers aren’t deterred by disease and death, another class of warnings seems geared to stir fears about the quality of life: “Smoking may cause infertility.” “Smoking may cause impotency.” “Smoking causes premature aging of the skin.” All of this again in huge capital letters.
If none of these prove effective, here’s the one that has to take the grand prize: “Smoking may become the cause of a slow and painful death.” The only thing missing for dramatic effect is a built-in electronic scream.
In addition, there are packs with words of sage counsel. To beginners: don’t start smoking. To seasoned smokers: see a doctor for help in quitting smoking. To parents: protect your children from cigarette smoke.
Cigarettes are still advertised in print, if you can call this advertising. The only claim made for the cigarettes themselves—twice, in huge letters—is that they’ll kill you. Otherwise, it’s “Meet the new design” (what, they’re turning the ominous black capitals into some kind of virtue?) and a blurb about the international tradition of quality maintained by the tobacco company since 1872.
How’s it all working? Public awareness is definitely at a higher level than it was a few years ago. Yet, judging by the empty cigarette packs I was able to gather with no effort at all, the tobacco companies don’t need to panic. It’s sort of like screaming at your children all the time. They become jaded to it. What do you do next to get their attention?
My next-door neighbor seems not to be deterred by the warnings. He smokes plenty, albeit in the hallway, away from his child. There’s one thing he seems to dread, however. I was visiting with him one evening out in the corridor as he smoked his cigarette. When he saw a neighbor lady coming who regularly chides him about his smoking, he quickly ducked into his place and shut the door. I guess we fear the bad opinion of others in the here and now more than bad future consequences.
You have to hand it to the Russian government, though: when they take action on something, they don’t go just halfway.