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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia slapped "smoking kills" warnings on cigarette packages from Saturday in an effort to crack down on an addiction kills up to 500,000 people a year and is on the rise.
According to World Health Organization statistics, 60 percent of Russian men smoke and the number of smokers, particularly among young women, has been growing since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
As many as 350,000 to half a million of Russians die each year of smoking-related causes, clouding the country's already gloomy demographic. The United Nations warns that the population may shrink from to 116 million by 2050 from 142 million now.
Adopting standards similar to those in the European Union, the Ministry of Health and Social Development requires the anti-smoking message to cover no less than 30 percent of the front of a package and another warning takes half of the back.
The messages range from warnings of lung cancer through wrinkles to impotence and will also come with information on the amount of nicotine and resins.
"Introduction of the new technical regulations of tobacco production is one of the steps in the path to limit the use and spread of tobacco production in Russia," the ministry said in a statement.
But the fight against smoking is a tough one in a nicotine-addicted nation where in 1990 a shortage of domestic cigarettes led to a "tobacco rebellion" on the streets of Russia's three biggest cities, forcing then-president Mikhail Gorbachev to appeal for an international emergency shipment.
Some 409 billion cigarettes were produced in the country last year, according to data from the Association of Tobacco Producers, or about 2,900 cigarettes per capita.
Russia remains one of the top tobacco clients, with the domestic market almost completely taken by three global players: Japan Tobacco Inc., Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco PLC.
"The number of tobacco producers in Russia is not increasing, not even by one," the paper Komsomolskaya Pravda cited on Saturday Gennady Onishchenko, the head of Russia's consumer protection watchdog Rospotrebnadzor, as saying.
Russia joined the World Health Organisation's anti-smoking convention in 2008, which requires gradual implementation of measures such as bans on smoking in public places and tobacco advertising.
Public awareness campaigns also have been increasing, with messages becoming less subtle.
Billboards two years ago showing a model wearing a dress made of cigarettes have given way to pictures of a sleeping infant with a cigarette placed on its back and the message: "Smoking in child's presence is a much bigger torture for him."
President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned smoking -- and alcoholism -- calling it a big tragedy of the nation.
But cigarettes remain affordable and available, with most priced at around 1 euro ($1.34) for 20, and unfiltered selling for much less.
Some coffee chains have become smoke-free this year, but many restaurants are filled with fumes and patrons who object get the least prestigious tables.
In June, Russia's Finance Ministry said it plans to increase the excise tax from the current 250 roubles ($8.05) per 1,000 filtered cigarettes by 44 percent to 360 roubles next year, eventually more than doubling it to 590 roubles in 2013.
But next year's increase is a fraction of what the Duma, the Lower House of Parliament, proposed in December, when it called for a quadrupling, which would double the price of cigarettes.
Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Roddy