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Russia's diligent tobacco tasters live and breathe their work
In the West machines are used to test the strength of cigarettes. Not so in Yelets, reports Robyn Dixon.
Larissa Solovyova expels a heavy cloud of acrid-smelling smoke that wafts like a small thundercloud by her face. She thrusts her nose into the smoke, sniffing heavily, her face stern with concentration.
It takes years of practical smoking classes to learn to smoke correctly, she says.
Ms Solovyova, 45, takes another pull on one of Russia's roughest cigarettes, dubbed papirosi, inhaling for so long that the end flares brightly.
"You just breathe it in as deeply as possible into your lungs," she says. "This is the final inhalation, to see how strong it is."
Ms Solovyova is not smoking for pleasure; it is a crucial part of her job. She and four other members of the Yelets tobacco factory "degustation committee" take their work - as quality barometers of high-tar cigarettes - seriously.
"I've been smoking 48 years, and I never tried to quit. All my conscious life has been devoted to this," says the committee chairman, Anatoly Topekha.
"He taught me everything I know," Ms Solovyova says, humbly. "He taught me to memorise the flavour specifics of each tobacco and the sensory perceptions that a smoker has while smoking. It's a complicated process."
The pair have matching smokers' coughs, barking into their hands from time to time.
Ms Solovyova and Mr Topekha are testing Belomorkanal papirosi, made of fifth-grade tobacco. It is a big seller for the Yelets factory, which makes 5billion papirosi and other cigarettes a year.
Papirosi are peculiarly Russian, popular among the poor, prisoners and soldiers. Instead of a filter, each one has a long hollow cardboard tube that smokers squash flat before lighting up.
Russians smoke 265 billion cigarettes a year - about 1,800 per person - and this is expected to rise 1 per cent, to 1.5 per cent, this year.
Smoking is much more common among men than women, although young women, particularly in Moscow, are taking it up. Among men aged 30 to 34, 72 per cent smoke, and among males older than 15, 59.8 per cent smoke. Among females older than 15, 9.1 per cent smoke.
In mortality rates for cardiovascular disease, cancer and infectious diseases, Russia ranks second-highest among 140 countries, behind Hungary. Another former Soviet bloc country, Latvia, is in third place.
Last year 63,092 Russians died of lung or throat cancer, and health authorities blame 90 per cent of the deaths on smoking. In the same year 2,355,658 died of cardiac disease, with 25 per cent of these deaths blamed on smoking.
The company's papirosi and filterless cigarettes have very high tar levels, 22 milligrams per cigarette in its Prima brand. There are no regulations governing the amount of tar in papirosi.
While Western cigarette companies also have regular panel samplings of cigarettes for subjective values such as taste, their products are much lower in tar, and they use machines rather than the Russian deep inhalation method to test for strength. Typically, they do not smoke raw tobacco samples, as the Russian panels do.
"It is hard when we are tasting for more than an hour," Ms Solovyova says. "Sometimes we take a 10-minute break to revive."
Mr Topekha insists that the work is not harmful and does not lead to disease because "tobacco leaves the body very quickly".
Ms Solovyova, who says her salary is a commercial secret, is the chief tobacco engineer at the factory and, when she is not smoking, is responsible for quality control of papirosi and cigarettes, labels and boxes. She takes her job so seriously that even off duty she smokes only Yelets tobacco factory products: Belomorkanal papirosi, Prima cigarettes made of fourth-grade tobacco and Yeletskiye filter cigarettes. Smoking the product full time, she says, improves her work on the committee.
During the degustation, committee members remain silent, scoring each item on detailed sheets for flavour, bitterness, acidity, the degree of irritation to the throat, the burning sensation on and around the tongue and other qualities.
Anatoly Berezhnov, 69, a pensioner and former cowherd, is a typical Belomorkanal smoker. He has his first daily papirosi before breakfast, "and it's good. If I didn't smoke I'd probably live for a hundred years, but I'll probably live 10 or 15 years less than that," he says lightly.
Los Angeles Times
Regards from Down Under...cough, cough
-- Pieter (email@example.com), August 11, 2000
We're off to Russia to sue Yelets for billions.
-- (TrialLawyers@theBoarding.gate), August 12, 2000.
I was a smoker for 12 years (aged 18 to 30). I have now been a non-smoker for 15 years. I am glad I quit. My dad smoked for 50 years. He quit after quadruple bypass surgery and it wasn't easy.
I have no truck with people who want to equate smoking with immorality or those who say smoking is harmless. I fully understand that every addict gets something positive from his or her addiction. I did. I had to give up the positives i order to quit. I will never say that another addict must give up those benefits in order to gain other health benefits.
I just think that the health effects of smoking ought to be universally known and publicized and the benefits of smoking ought to be known through word of mouth only. No Madison Avenue magic. No misrepresentation of the harm. No government subsidy.
After that, if people choose to foul their lungs, it is their own affair. Informed consent is my creed.
-- Brian McLaughlin (firstname.lastname@example.org), August 14, 2000.