MOSCOW — With an army of 44 million smokers, Russia is the world’s fourth largest cigarette market after China, India and Indonesia. But that may soon change.
In a revolution against King Tobacco, Russia has just banned smoking in all restaurants, bars, hotels, and trains. And it is now an increasingly common in Moscow to see groups of men and women smoking on the sidewalks.
Oleg Xhoroshim, a 43-year-old Moscow resident, welcomes the big change. He says he and his children are nonsmokers. They were tired of breathing other peoples' smoke.
He says, in little cafes and little restaurants, smoke spreads. So he fully supports the new law.
As Russian bars approach their first non-smoking weekend, bartenders worry that clients will stay away.
“You should have freedom to choose what you want. There are a lots of non-smoking restaurants in Moscow, so I think it makes no sense,” said Sergei Goncharov, who tends bar at John Donne Pub, a popular central Moscow establishment.
The ban even extends to Russia’s wildly popular “summer verandas.” Smokers will have to stand five meters from these outdoor chairs and tables.
Opponents, like Goncharov, stress that in much of Russia outdoor temperatures are below freezing for half of the year.
“When it is summer, it is not so annoying. But when it is cold, you should put on your coat and go somewhere,” he said.
Last year, Russia banned cigarette advertising, placed graphic warnings on cigarette packs, and restricted smoking in many areas. Russia’s Health Ministry said these steps pushed 15 percent of the nation’s smokers to quit.
Now, Russia plans to increase cigarette taxes six times in an effort to cut the nation’s legion of smokers by another 15 percent.
Alexei Tatarsky, a lung specialist, approves.
"For the first time ever," he said, "the government is taking serious and decisive measures in the fight against smoking."
Today, 60 percent of Russian men smoke. In Soviet days, cigarette shortages sparked riots.
Tatarsky says the Kremlin faces a challenge - changing the lives of almost half Russia’s adult population, without provoking a backlash.
Oleg Smolin, a smoker for 10 years, says adjusting to the new law will be tough, but doable.
“We will get used to it," he said. And he asked, "if in Europe and in other countries, they get used to it, why can’t we?”
For now, Russians appear to be complying. It could be fear of fines for violations: the ruble equivalent of $45 for a smoker, $1,000 for a restaurant, and $2,000 for a business.