We don’t often find much to admire in Russian President Vladimir Putin, Annexer of Crimea, Flatterer of Trump, Enemy of Democracy.
But Putin soon may grab a title that we envy — Vanquisher of Cigarettes.
Here’s why: Russia proposes to ban the sale of cigarettes to people born in 2015 and thereafter. Everyone older is presumably grandfathered in. Everyone else, generations to come, would not be able to buy cigarettes legally. Eventually, when the last Russian born in 2014 dies, so would legal cigarette sales. (Generation-X-tinguish?)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into low Earth orbit, igniting the space race. Could Moscow now spur a global rivalry to be the first country to puff its last cigarette?
Go, Vlad, go!
No, we don’t believe a proposal similar to Moscow’s could gain traction in the United States. Such draconian laws didn’t prevent Americans from drinking during Prohibition. Even if cigarettes were illegal, people would find ways to smuggle and smoke, creating a thriving black market. Speak-easies would become smoke-easies. And imagine the political outcry if cigarettes were legal for people born in one year but not ever for those born a year later.
Having often railed against nanny-state policies and promoted individual choice in many realms, we’re often the wrong party to declare Thou Shalt Not.
But we’re free to anticipate a fascinating experiment in social engineering, Kremlin-style — if it happens. The Russian proposal isn’t law yet. Even if it is passed, Putin and other leaders presumably will be out of office long before the first generation of those banned at birth from tobacco become adults and start pushing for repeal and replace. Or not.
Putin has already accelerated efforts to cut smoking, which kills about 300,000 to 400,000 people there every year. In 2013, Russia banned smoking in most public places, including workplaces, hiked tobacco taxes and quashed the sale of smokes in street kiosks. Still, smoking rates remain high in Russia.
But the Russians report progress: The number of youths ages 13 to 15 who smoke sank to 9.3 percent in 2015 from a staggering 25.4 percent in 2004, according to the Health Ministry, The New York Times reports.
As a rough comparison: U.S. teen smoking has plummeted by half or more in just five years, according to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study. The 2016 government-sponsored survey found that just under 1 percent of eighth-graders report smoking cigarettes daily, down from 2.4 percent five years ago, while 1.9 percent of 10th-graders smoked, down from 5.5 percent five years ago. The same pattern held for 12th-graders: 4.8 percent light up daily, down from 10.3 percent.
The battle to defeat cigarettes isn’t just a superpower contest. The tiny kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayas, for instance, outlawed the sale of tobacco more than a decade ago and banned smoking in public places and private offices. In 2011, researchers noted, the overall smoking rate — 2.8 percent — in Bhutan was by far the lowest in Asia. The researchers couldn’t pinpoint the effect of the ban because they didn’t collect comparative data before the ban. “But all the signs are that it has reduced use,” the researchers wrote. Our conclusion: The country known as Shangri-La is busy creating a non-smokers’ paradise.
Will Moscow — or anyone else — beat them to it?
The world knows that helping people quit smoking, or never start, carries immense health benefits. In a scant generation or two, smoking has lost much of its appeal. An American culture that once glamorized it now ostracizes it. Smoking rates plummet.
And the race is on.