Smoking is a ubiquitous Russian habit. Long after much of Europe lost interest, Russians have continued their unhealthy love affair with cigarettes. In restaurants, bars, outside the Bolshoi theatre, and beneath the ornate porticos of Moscow’s metro stations, Russians still light up.
But now President Putin – the country’s bare-chested paragon of clean living – has signed a new law banning smoking in public places. From 1 June smoking will be outlawed in offices, playgrounds and station entrances, with a ban on restaurants, bars and long-distance trains following a year later.
Putin’s ambition, it seems, is to turn around Russia’s dismal health statistics. (Some 70% of men and 26% of women smoke; nearly 400,000 Russians die every year from smoking-related diseases. Male life expectancy is terrible too: a paltry 60.1 years. Female is 73.2. The population is shrinking.)
Poverty, fatalism, and unbearably grey six-month winters may explain why Russians cling on to life’s simple pleasures, notably cigarettes and booze. And it remains to be seen whether the new “law” will actually work, in a country not exactly known for its judicial system, or its impartial application of official rules. More probable is that the police will seize on the new diktat to fleece – selectively – those caught in the act. The new fine for flouting the law is 3,000 roubles (£65).
Some establishments are already non-smoking. They include Moscow’s smattering of hipster cafes frequented by the anti-Putin opposition. Here, activists can enjoy the illusion they live in law-abiding Europe. One favourite is a small, unassuming pancake bar in an underpass beneath Belorussky station.
The big picture, according to the World Health Organization, is that smoking is on the decline in the developed world, while rising in the developing. There are some gender differences: five times as many men as women there smoke. Meanwhile, smoking among women in affluent countries is going up.
But it’s not just the Russians puffing away. Smoking remains rampant in eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union (yes, that’s you Estonia, Latvia and Georgia.) There is also a lot of it in China and Greece. Even the Germans have yet to kick the habit – Berlin, so exemplary in other respects, is western Europe’s smoking bad boy.