Russia’s new defense minister wants to extinguish one of the Russian military’s most endemic health problems and martial perks: giving free cigarettes to troops. His challenge is to prevent nicotine-deprived soldiers from violently freaking out.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has reportedly drawn up a rule to end the longstanding practice of providing enlisted troops and cadets with 10 cigarettes a day. According to the Russian newspaperIzvestia, the reason is pretty straightforward: Russian soldiers choke down cigarettes, and the subsidy is encouraging the next generation of uniformed addicts.
“New non-smoking conscripts who find themselves among the smokers generally begin to smoke too,” Alexander Kanshin, national security chairman of the Kremlin’s Civic Chamber, told the newspaper. “This is not good for anyone.”
But troops may not be able to handle losing their free smokes. “Tobacco shortages will affect the psychology of the smokers,” Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee, a human rights organization focused on the military, told Izvestia. “Platoon or company commanders will start collecting money from the ranks, including non-smokers. This will result in speculation, extortion, bullying and even violence.” (In case you were wondering, the Defense Department included free cigarettes in some K-rations until 1975.)
The reason, Melnikova implies, is that troops won’t necessarily quit smoking, and won’t have enough money to pay for cigarettes over the counter, leading to a black market within the military. It wasn’t until January that service members saw a raise from 500 to 1,000 rubles, or $16.50 to $32 per month. Before the raise, many soldiers spent much of their take-home pay on cigarettes, according to RIA Novosti, even with the government ration. (Smoking’s expensive.) Izvestia also suggests that troops would need their salaries to quadruple to support their habit.
Russia has one of the highest smoking rates in the world: About 40 percent of the population smokes, compared to 19 percent of U.S. adults. It’s a particular problem with males, who represent 60 percent of Russian nicotine addicts. Smoking has been an acute problem in the post-Soviet era. Foreign tobacco companies flooded the country with cheap cigarettes in the 1990s, which were blamed for contributing to a surge in mortality rates that had economists panicking.
Ending the Russian military cigarette subsidy hasn’t been easy: A brief 2009 effort was actually reversed. At the time, the chief of the Russian army’s catering corps said the backtrack owed to thehundreds of millions of cigarettes sitting in warehouses, which allowed the army to continue to meet demand for the next several years. Clearly, the military didn’t want to go cold turkey.
So does this mean a more bellicose Russian military? Just don’t aggravate Russia until its troops kick the habit.