MOSCOW Russia launched a crackdown on smoking on Tuesday with a bill to ban tobacco advertising and raise taxes on cigarettes to help tackle a public health crisis in the world's second largest tobacco market after China.
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said in a video blog that 44 million Russians, nearly one in three, were hooked on smoking, and almost 400,000 die every year of smoking-related causes.
Under Health Ministry proposals, tobacco advertising - now only allowed in some print media - would be outlawed, taxes increased on cigarette sales and smoking in cafes and other public spaces eventually banned.
The bill is expected to be submitted to parliament for approval in the coming days.
"Every year (the equivalent of) a large city disappears," Medvedev said. "The government has adopted an anti-tobacco strategy and today we are beginning to put it in place."
The habit of lighting up in Russia, where the air in bars, coffee shops and stairwells is thick with smoke, is encouraged by the cheap price of cigarettes. A pack typically costs around 50-60 roubles (less than $2).
While President Vladimir Putin is a non-smoker and has reprimanded ministers for smoking, some other top officials, such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, are heavy smokers.
Some people on Moscow streets doubted the measures would have any effect. "People will smoke no matter what, its Russia," said Viktor, a salesman who did not give his surname.
The government hopes the legislation will help improve life expectancy, which at 62 for men and 74 for women in 2009, remains low by the standards of other middle-income countries.
The Russian cigarette market, estimated to be worth around $22 billion in 2011 by Euromonitor International, is a significant part of overseas tobacco companies' businesses.
Four foreign tobacco companies - Japan Tobacco International, Phillip Morris, British American Tobacco, and Imperial Tobacco - control more than 90 percent of Russian sales and have been lobbying to soften the proposed legislation.
The bill would probably become law next spring if submitted to parliament by November 1, Nikolai Gerasimenko, deputy chairman of the State Duma's health committee, was quoted by the state-run Itar-Tass news agency as saying.
Russia's Finance Ministry has previously announced plans to increase the excise duty on tobacco by around 40 percent for 2013 and 2014 and said on Tuesday it plans to hike taxes by 10 percent a year after 2015. The Health Ministry supports a greater increase in duty.
The proposed legislation follows in the footsteps of other countries, mostly in the West, who have imposed strict controls on the advertising and sales of cigarettes and banned smoking in public places.
British American Tobacco, which has 19.6 percent of the market according to Euromonitor, said in a statement the company is not against tougher regulations, but lawmakers "have to consider the interests of both non-smokers and smokers".
"There are various methods for this, from installing modern ventilation systems to special isolation rooms for smoking in public places," BAT said.
A spokesman for Philip Morris, which has a market share of 26.4 percent, said it was premature to comment as the bill has not yet been submitted to parliament.
Around 165,000 kiosk owners and workers have signed a petition against the proposed ban on the sale of cigarettes by the vendors. They say many kiosks, which provide work for around one million people, could be forced out of business.
"Our customers will continue to buy cigarettes, but they will get them from the bigger shops, where it's easier to buy everything at once," said petition coordinator Vladlen Maximov.
(Additional reporting Sonia Elks, Natalia Ishchenko, Maria Kiselyova, Gleb Bryanski; writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Megan Davies; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Diana Abdallah)