Issue 53, January 2013.


After years as one of Europe’s last bastions of public smoking 2012 finally saw ban imposed

Ukraine has always been a smoker’s country. It is rare to find a historical depiction of a Cossack who is not either actually in the act of smoking or in possession of a pipe, while the smell of strong, stale tobacco has long been one of the signature aromas which expats typically associate with the country. Over the past decade, as countries throughout the world have adopted public smoking bans, Ukraine has increasingly stood out as an oasis of laissez faire tobacco consumption where it remained possible to smoke pretty much wherever you pleased. All that changed overnight in mid-December when a nationwide smoking ban in public places – including all bars, clubs and restaurants – came into effect. This ban brings Ukraine into the 21st century and represents one of the most meaningful public health measures adopted in the country since independence. Nevertheless, today’s Ukrainians remain a nation of smokers and this national habit is causing enormous damage to the country’s health. 

Public backs ban 
The initial indications are that Ukraine’s new smoking ban will be implemented and adhered to without much fuss. Fears that venues would choose to ignore it have so far proved unfounded – on the contrary, there has been general enthusiasm for the smoke-free environment created by the ban, particularly among the bar and restaurant service staff who were traditionally among the biggest victims of passive smoking. The ban appears to enjoy broad public backing throughout Ukrainian society – surveys indicate that large majorities among both smokers and non-smokers support the blanket ban – so its continued enforcement should not become a politically sensitive issue. Venues which choose to flout the ban run the risk of being hit with heavy fines of up to UAH 10,000 for each offense, while individual smokers can also be subject to financial penalties.

A nation of smokers

Critics of Ukraine’s smoking policy believe this new ban is long overdue. More than eleven million Ukrainians are smokers – almost 30% of the country’s entire adult population. This is one of the highest percentages in today’s Europe and is only surpassed by the likes of Russia and China. By comparison, an estimated 19% of the US adult population smokes – a figure which has been radically reduced over the past forty years thanks to America’s leading role in the anti-smoking crusade. Ukraine first signed up to the World Health Organisation’s Tobacco Control Convention in 2006, but prior to December’s blanket ban the country had actually witnessed few significant measures curtailing smoking in public places. The previous policy had required bars and restaurants to designate smoking and non-smoking zones – a typically Ukrainian legislative half-measure which satisfied no one while leaving plenty of room for ambiguity and maneuver. 

Too cheap to quit?

It will take years before the impact of Ukraine’s smoking ban can be assessed, but it is hoped that it will prove a turning point in the fight against smoking and smoking-related illnesses. Up to 100,000 Ukrainians die prematurely each year as a result of smoking-related diseases and the country remains far behind much of Europe in terms of public awareness about the dangers of tobacco. New guidelines on Ukrainian cigarette packaging have recently been introduced as part of government efforts to confront the costs of smoking. All Ukrainian cigarette packages now come complete with large health warnings and graphic images of the damage caused by smoking – both of which are 50% of the entire packet in size. Such measures bring Ukraine closer into line with EU norms but they are likely to have a limited impact as long as cigarettes themselves remain so cheap on the Ukrainian market. A packet of cigarettes can cost five times less in Ukraine than in EU countries, fuelling a thriving black market of cigarette smugglers plying their trade along well-worn routes crisscrossing Ukraine’s vast EU borderlands. This low cost also makes smoking an affordable habit for even lower income Ukrainians, making it significantly harder to promote a quitting culture in the country. Time will tell whether the smoking ban succeeds in persuading many of the country’s eleven million smokers to kick the habit, but it is certainly a step in the right direction and one which appears to have immediately won public favour.