After not being able to access my blog a few days ago, regular reader Dmitri Kossyrev suggested that he might write a guest piece about the recent defeat (yes, defeat!) suffered by the Russian branch of Tobacco Control. Of particular interest to me in his piece was the mention of the Tobacco Control conference in Moscow, which I’ve covered before.
Dmitri has made guest appearances on my blog before (here, writing about Donald Trump, and here about the Russian smoking ban), when I introduced him as a Russian journalist, sinologist, and smoking activist. I neglected to mention that he is also one of the most prominent thriller/crime writers in Russia today, with a string of books to his name, but only one in an English translation: The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas.
My Baby Shot Me Down
by Dmitri Kossyrev
Several things have happened to the Russian Health Ministry’s anti-smoking campaign, and all of them are good.
First, they had a Concept. A glorious Concept of fighting smoking until the year 2022, and maybe onwards. The Ministry distributed that concept paper to other governmental departments and the general public last autumn, and waited for a response, calling it “a public discussion”.
You all know what was in the plan: Plain packaging, by the year so-and-so. Raising excise tax on cigarettes and e-cigs “to the EU level”, by the year so-and- so. Introducing further bans in open air places, by the year so-and- so. And, finally, there had to be a prohibition on anyone born after the year 2015 from buying any tobacco at all.
The end result is zero. The Concept has been edited by the Ministry after the “public discussion” and published in its revised form. It became a general and empty declaration of intent, since every concrete figure, especially all these mentions of the year so-and-so, had been edited out. Any experienced bureaucrat, and the general public too, knows very well what it means: It means precisely nothing at all.
So what went… right? I’d be happy to say that “we did it” – that is, the Russian Movement for Smoker’s Rights. Our leaders, comprising People’s Artists and other celebrities, did write letters to the President and the Prime Minister. And people like me did write columns (I do it weekly) and participated in fierce debates on TV and radio.
But it was not us. Or not only us. True, I’ve seen publications in national leading newspapers about the scam of passive smoking, containing the facts, or passages taken from my columns. And then there were other writers who did the same, completely on their own.
But TC had been expecting all that. They were carefully arranging debates without opposition, parliamentary hearings without all the proper speakers.
All very familiar. But they failed.
First was that initiative about the people born after 2015. I’ve told my audience, many times, that it was only a decoy. That idea was to raise real hell, as in “How about the Constitution?” and “Are they totally crazy?”. Then TC was supposed to accept the public verdict, taking this decoy out of their Concept, while keeping the rest of the ugly stuff there: See, we made a compromise.
But the rest of the stuff went, too.
Second, when one office suggests some new legislation, it has to submit it to other offices and wait for their official response. And they’ve got it. Ministries of Industry and Economy wrote that plain packaging is mad, because it opens the door to fakes. Raising taxes to the EU level opens the door to smuggling of cigarettes to Russia from the Eurasian Union. The police, reportedly, giggled about the real (and very predictable) impact of that 2015 idea.
Third, there was a case with the so-called “Young Lions” movement, harassing people in public places and dousing their cigarettes with water pistols. It caused public outrage and prodded top politicians into statements like: “Boys, you can’t do that”.
Fourth, while the Health Ministry was murmuring “My baby shot me down”, yet another office, the Ministry of Finance, lunged at it. It has started a corruption investigation into the matter of 20 million US dollars for a mansion in Moscow meant for the WHO anti-smokers. And yet another investigation started on the maybe 18 million euros (at the current rates), spent by the same Ministry in 2014 on the Framework Convention gala in Moscow. It’s public money, the finance people reportedly said. Why so much – and where are the results of the past 5 years of frenetic anti-tobacco activity? And don’t give us that fake data about everybody giving it up.
All these things happened almost at the same time.
The bad guys will of course regroup and re-launch their attack. But still a little victory is always good for you. Helps you to prepare for a counter-attack.
In the meantime I can’t help spreading a bit of Russian propaganda. I don’t know if we are a free country (I don’t believe such countries exist). Our civil society may not believe in free media and the benefits of rallies and demonstrations. Do you? In our case it was the top bureaucracy that has checked the onslaught of the crazies. It was the people who were coming to members of our organization and quietly asking: how to stop that madness? So, we are a country where bureaucracy matters a lot.
But, still, I’ve enjoyed access to top TV and radio programs, where the hosts, sometimes, have been openly on my side (or have been telling me that secretly). Do you? And in general the public mood has been (and still is) if not for smoking, then against the ugly methods of fighting it.
So, I just cannot help thinking that sometimes it’s good to be Russian. That is, if you know how to ignore the testing climate.