For all the deserved criticism President Viktor Yanukovych is getting in his steady march toward authoritarianism, his two-year-rule has its bright spots. One of them is the president’s strong support for public health, at least when it comes to adopting policies that help break his nation from the deadly habit of smoking.
Yanukovych on June 13 signed into law a complete ban on smoking in public places – restaurants, bars and nightclubs – as well as government buildings. Small smoking sections will still be allowed in private buildings.
“The new law means that Ukraine moved one more step toward Europe and the smoke-free facilities that are the norm in most European countries,” said Konstantin Krasovsky, the nation’s tireless tobacco-control champion.
In signing this legislation, Yanukovych courageously stood up to the insidious tobacco lobby, whose representatives spread false information in their shameful pursuit of addicting millions of new smokers every year. About 11 million of 46 million Ukrainians habitually smoke, with an estimated 115,000 dying prematurely from smoking-related illnesses every year. Smoking prevalence among men is among the highest in the world and life expectancy among the lowest.
The pieces of the nation’s comprehensive tobacco-control strategy are now coming into place. This fall, an advertising ban will go into effect and health warnings will be larger and contain graphic images covering 50 percent of the front and back of a pack. In December, the smoking ban will start to protect non-smokers from harmful second-hand smoke and prompt smokers to cut back.
But the most effective piece of this strategy – tax increases – still needs a lot of work. While taxes have been hiked in recent years on cigarettes, the increases have not been high enough to substantially raise the cost of smoking. Cigarettes still sell for only $1.50 a pack or even less. Heavy taxation is the most effective way to reduce smoking.
It also raises sorely needed government revenue. Higher cigarette taxes will also be effective in ending Ukraine’s notorious status as a supplier of cigarettes smuggled internationally. More than 100 billion cheap cigarettes are produced every year in Ukraine’s factories.
The president has shown that he knows how to lead on this issue, so we hope that he will push through a hefty tax hike on cigarettes before parliament adjourns for the summer.