Kremlin raises the red flag about smoking

``In Red Square, people don't smoke.'' In idiomatic Russian, that's what the signs say. It's hard to miss them, posted as they are at every entrance to the cobblestoned square hard by the Kremlin wall.

The signs, how they came to be there, and the reactions they draw, yield some insights into the way Soviet society runs.

They appeared earlier this year, after a brief announcement in the government-controlled press that smoking would henceforth be banned on the square. There was no statutory period for public comment, no impassioned debate about the rights of smokers, no intervention by the tobacco lobby -- and no appeal. Just a decree, and then the signs went up.

That sort of thing happens quite often here in the Soviet Union.

The grounds? That Red Square is a hallowed place, and people should show respect by refraining from smoking here.

What about that wording, ``People don't smoke?''

The imperative form of the verb isn't used; it isn't a command. In that, it differs from many of the ubiquitous propaganda signs that abound in this city instructing workers to work hard, fulfill the yearly plan, enact the resolutions of the Communist Party, resist imperialism, and so forth.

The signs are so omnipresent that, after awhile, they tend to fade into the urban landscape. One suspects they are largely ignored.

But this one is somehow different. It simply states that people don't smoke. That's probably more than an effort to be polite. It could be an appeal to Soviet citzens on a subtler level -- as part of a collective consciousness.

That's literally a way of life in this country. From grade school, through universities, and into workplaces, Soviet citizens are inevitably part of one group or another -- be it a youth group, a trade union, or even the Communist Party. Such groups play a socializing role, and, more importantly, help set norms of behavior.

It fosters a sort of collective mentality that encourages people to be watchful of the behavior of others. And if we (the people) don't smoke in Red Square, who are you to take issue?

It seems to work -- for the most part.

On a recent sunny morning, smokers could be seen halting and finishing their cigarettes before entering the square. Admittedly, one youth strode through the square puffing away. But his blue jeans, down-filled parka, and fancy leather boots indicated he was a foreigner. Soviet citizens can spot them a mile away.

There was one young Russian, wearing a gray rabbit-fur hat, who kept smoking as he entered the square. He was deep in conversation with two young women.

Did he see the sign?

``No, I didn't see it,'' he answered.

``Excuse me,'' he said, a bit chagrined, and hurriedly continued onward.

Still, he didn't throw the cigarette away. Instead, he merely cupped it in his hand, out of sight, until he crossed the square.

Unlike many consumer goods in the Soviet Union, cigarettes are never in short supply. And each Soviet cigarette package carries a notice: ``The Ministry of Health warns that smoking is hazardous to your health.''

Here the tobacco industry did not lift a finger to resist the practice -- because the government is the tobacco industry, supervising the growing or import of tobacco, manufacturing and marketing cigarettes, and collecting the taxes and sharing in the profits when they are sold.

This dual role of regulator and regulated seems not to trouble authorities here. From time to time the government-controlled press prints cautionary articles about smoking, or a noted physician bemoans the ravages that smoking inflicts on the health of the Soviet populace.

Smoking is banned in stores, and in some restaurants and public buildings. But, in general, warnings about smoking seem not to be followed rigorously.

Smoking does not seem to be as serious a problem here as in other countries. According to a report in the newspaper Soviet Russia, the Soviet Union ranks twenty-seventh in per capita annual consumption of cigarettes, well behind the United States.

Still, Yevgeny Chazov, a prominent physician, says smoking is a major detriment to the health of Soviet citizens. Some 40 percent of all 16-year-olds are addicted to nicotine, he says.

Mr. Chazov has a reputation as the ``Politburo doctor,'' the physician who treats the men who make up the ruling political bureau of the Communist Party.

One of those men is the Soviet leader, Konstantin Chernenko, whose office is not far from Red Square. He has recently been seen on television, gasping and struggling for breath as he spoke. It's said that he's now suffering from a lung disease brought on by heavy smoking.

A member of the Soviet militia, the internal police, strolls across Red Square in a sheepskin greatcoat.

What does he do if he sees an offender smoking?

``I give them a reproof,'' he says.

And do they always obey?

``Yes, of course.''

That sort of thing also happens quite often here in the Soviet Union.

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