World Europe

Born in Russia after 2014? You might never be able to buy cigarettes.

Russia's Ministry of Health has a controversial plan to combat smoking: banning them to anyone born in 2015 or after. If approved, the legislation would take effect in 2033, when today's toddlers turn 18, the current minimum age.

Anti-smoking groups typically use images of ashtrays in their promotional material. Some of these groups now see Russia's proposal to phase in a ban on cigarette sales as the best path forward.
Lisi Niesner/Reuters/File
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If Russia’s Ministry of Health gets its way, the country’s youngest citizens will never be able to buy cigarettes. On Monday, Russian media reported that the agency’s 2017-2022 anti-tobacco plan includes a ban on cigarette sales to any Russian born in 2015 or later, according to Radio Free Europe, a US government-funded publication.

Currently, Russians may legally purchase cigarettes at the age of 18. The Ministry of Health’s proposal – which still requires government approval – would take away this option beginning in 2033, when those Russians born in 2015 will turn 18.

This proposal comes on the heels of a report from the National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization, which found that 33.8 percent of adult Russians smoke daily. Smoking-related mortality cost the country’s economy $24.7 billion in 2006.

Russia’s Ministry of Health clearly views this situation as a problem. But its proposal to ban future generations from buying cigarettes breaks with conventional wisdom on how to reduce smoking.

“Government efforts to reduce cigarette consumption by restricting supplies have been largely unsuccessful,” researchers wrote in a 2001 report published on behalf of the World Bank, World Health Organization, and the Human Development Network. “Banning tobacco is unrealistic and unlikely to work.”

Sixteen years later, most policymakers still aren’t talking about bans. Instead, US experts credit a “winning combination” of policies, including cigarette taxes and graphic warning labels, with bringing the number of smokers to a record low.  Similar techniques have also been used in Russia. A 2009 anti-smoking campaign plastered graphic anti-smoking ads around Moscow, and the country declared the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics “smoke free.” The Ministry of Health’s most recent proposal would also increase restrictions on where Russian smokers may light up, banning smoking in cars with children. Public health measures like these may already be showing results: According to the World Bank, the percentage of Russian men who smoke dropped from 67 percent in 2000 to 60 percent in 2012.

But some want those numbers to drop faster, and see a birth-year ban like Russia’s as the best path forward. Barring those born after a certain date from buying cigarettes was first proposed by Jon Berrick, an Australian-born mathematician who teaches at the National University of Singapore.

In a 2013 article published in the journal Tobacco Control, Berrick noted that “More than 80% of smokers start by age 18, and virtually all by 26. Therefore, preventing youth initiation may be the key to ending the tobacco epidemic.” He argued that simply restricting cigarettes to 18-and-up consumers undermined this goal. Instead, this practice created a “rite-of-passage effect” that linked smoking with adulthood in the eyes of teenagers, and encouraged those near the age of 18 to light up.

Citing evidence that "smoking initiation predominantly occurs in the company of same-age peers," Professor Berrick proposed that governments take cigarettes off the table for all those born after a certain date, a plan he calls "Tobacco-Free Generation." Activists have pressed for this policy in Singapore, Britain, and the Australian state of Tasmania – all cited by the a Russian Ministry of Health representative in explaining their proposal. In January 2016, Balanga City in the Philippines became the first – and, so far, the only – jurisdiction to implement the policy.

Could a tobacco-free generation emerge in Russia? Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, thinks so.

"Russia faces one of the most serious tobacco problems in the world and is to be commended for the strong steps it has taken in recent years," he writes in an emailed statement to The Christian Science Monitor. "We believe it is appropriate for countries like Russia, which are facing a crushing burden from tobacco use, to explore innovative and multifaceted approaches to rapidly reduce tobacco use like the current set of proposals now being considered in Russia."

But others see challenges ahead. Smokers’-rights activist Olga Beklemishcheva told Russian media that “there will be a black market” for cigarettes if the ban goes through, pointing to the trade in currently banned drugs.

Berrick, the first proponent of such a ban, has previously downplayed the possibility that a ban would fuel illegal trade.

“By avoiding forced cessation among existing users,” he wrote in 2013, “the measure creates no new denied addicts needed to fuel a black market.” Officials in Russia’s Ministry of Health seem to agree.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct Michael Myers' name and the name of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.]