Urban Tactics: Marlboro Men

ON wintry nights in Manhattan, little bands of smokers huddle under restaurant awnings, shivering as they struggle to light their cigarettes in the icy wind.

You will not find them outside many of the Russian restaurants in Brighton Beach. Here, smokers simply stay inside. They may wait a bit longer before lighting up, and they may have to crush a few cigarettes into their appetizer plates before the waiters reluctantly break out the ashtrays, but the evening still ends in a smoky haze. As the journalist Alexander Grant wrote in Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the city’s main Russian-language daily, in 2003, when the city’s antismoking law went into effect, cigarette smoke is to the Russian restaurant as steam is to the steam bath.

For many Russians, smoking was virtually a national pastime when they lived in the Soviet Union; a 1988 study showed that in some cities, the number of male smokers exceeded 70 percent. Government-sponsored self-improvement campaigns, like Mikhail Gorbachev’s ill-fated crackdown on alcoholism, were a fixture of Soviet life, but most Russians, disillusioned by decades of government disregard for individual rights, tended to dismiss such efforts with derision.

This attitude hasn’t prevented another government agency, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, from taking up the cause. Alarmed by statistics showing that 30 percent of Russian-American New Yorkers smoke – the citywide average is 18 percent – the agency has been blanketing Russian-language newspapers and radio since last month with an antismoking advertising campaign.

In Brighton Beach, a billboard has gone up featuring glowering images of Igor Zinoviev, the Russian-American extreme fighter, pummeling and crushing cigarettes. The tagline, in Russian, reads, “Who’s Stronger … You or Cigarettes?”

“It was obviously really important to have an advertising campaign that was culturally sensitive,” said Thomas R. Frieden, the city’s health commissioner. “Initially, we thought we’d have this big antitobacco pitch because we presumed the Russians would have a distrust of power – ‘The tobacco companies are trying to rip you off, don’t be a pawn.’ But they said: ‘Hey, this is why we came to this country. We like capitalists.’ ”

Though many New York neighborhoods have concentrations of people who speak Russian, among them the Upper East Side and Rego Park, Queens, the campaign has focused on Brighton Beach, home to 200,000 Russian-speakers. The campaign, which continues through next month, began with an event at the Shorefront Y in Brighton, where 200 people were given a free six-week supply of nicotine-replacement patches worth $150.

To an enterprising cynic, the patches might have seemed to offer an opportunity for profit, especially among people raised in a country where such sidelines were necessary to survive a sclerotic economy. But so far, there have been no reports of on-the-sly resale to local pharmacies or on the street. And Mr. Frieden insisted that he wouldn’t mind if that happened. “I don’t care about resale,” he said. “As long as someone is using it, that’s great.”

Alex Agroskin, a Russian-speaking addiction counselor at Coney Island Hospital, said some participants in the program seemed to be doing well. “Quite a few of the 200 have cut down, and several have quit altogether,” said Mr. Agroskin, who has been making follow-up calls to people who took the patches. “I just spoke to a gentleman who used to smoke two packs a day and is now down to three, four cigarettes.”

But encouraging Russians to stop smoking is like weaning Americans off baseball: it may be no accident that Sergey Lavrov, a chain smoker who was then Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, led diplomatic resistance to a 2003 smoking ban at the United Nations building.

“Soviet people are not very well-informed about the dangers of smoking,” said Boris Talis, publisher of a Brighton Beach newspaper called Odessa on the Hudson. “In the Soviet Union, they always used to paint rosy pictures for us. No one ever revealed that lung cancer and heart disease were the No. 1 killers.”

IN the Soviet Union, smoking was a prop of national mythology. “The most iconic Soviet image was the battle-weary soldier returning from World War II and rolling some tobacco in a piece of newspaper,” said Simon Millerman, a Brighton Beach resident who runs an economic development consulting firm. “A whole country grew up on it.”

Nor did national efforts to combat smoking gain much traction.

“The propaganda against it was so stupid,” said Ari Kagan, who also lives in Brighton Beach and writes for the Russian weekly Evening New York. “They used to have this film that showed a horse keeling over from cigarette smoke under the message, ‘A drop of nicotine can kill a horse.’ People would just laugh.”

Mr. Kagan continued: “Generally, smoking was a way to get over the nervous stress of just living in that place. And the ultimate symbol of another life was a pack of Marlboros. If someone happened to go abroad, a carton of Marlboros was a better gift than $1,000.”

Even people who have found New York’s campaign worthwhile can see how it could be more persuasive. “The patches aren’t enough,” said Mr. Zinoviev, the campaign’s poster boy, who will make promotional appearances in Brighton Beach with a bevy of “boxing girls” throughout the winter. “You have to frighten people a little bit, show them what a tumor looks like.”

At some of the restaurants that line Brighton Beach Avenue, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare, the city may have better luck persuading the owners than the patrons that smoking is not a good idea.

“It used to be that the income from a client who wanted to smoke – and would go to a different restaurant if he wasn’t allowed – was higher than the fine that was levied by the inspectors from the health department, who don’t come in the evening, anyway,” said Mr. Grant, the journalist. “But the fines went up, and the owners cracked down.”

Still, he added, there are plenty of loopholes – “in a hallway, on a stairwell, in the bathroom – that are tolerated because the restaurants don’t want to lose the business.”

“If a restaurant has 200 guests on a weekend night,” Mr. Grant said, “half of them are smoking.”

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