Winter 1995 (3.4)
Dumping on the Unlegislated
by Tofiga Gasimova
People in Baku are used to billboards, even the large oversized ones. Not so long ago, they were filled with portraits of Lenin, Marx, Brezhnev, and other party leaders with slogans praising the Communist Party. Now they're covered with lone cowboys, riding horses and wearing wide-rimmed hats, which shade their eyes from the blazing desert sun.
Now instead of being called by our proletariat leaders to struggle for peace and internationalism, we're invited to inhale deeply of the pleasures of cigarettes like Marlboro, Lucky Strike, and Kent. These advertisements tend to be highly graphic and are often accompanied by only three simple words-in English, no less-"Made in USA". The message is strategically calculated to play upon our fascination with this place called "America."
While anti-smoking campaigns are being hotly debated at the highest levels of government in many Western countries, tobacco companies are rushing to dump their products in countries like ours where there is no legislation or regulatory bodies such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration in U.S.) to control and curb their activities.
Left: Omnipresent cigarette advertisements in Baku these days.
Cigarette manufacturers and distributors-particularly Philip Morris which packages Marlboro, are waging extremely aggressive advertisement campaigns in Azerbaijan. Their bright-red colored signs scream at us from everywhere-billboards, kiosks, and store signage. An epidemic has besieged us, creating visual pollution in our uniquely beautiful city scape. These omnipresent reminders are particularly obnoxious in the center of Baku where there are so many fine examples of majestic classical architecture which were built at the turn of last century. Since October, for example, we can no longer glance in the direction of the Maiden Tower, that enduring monument which has been our city's landmark for eight centuries, without getting our eyes full of cigarette advertisements. Where are the Architectural Preservationists to challenge such blatant intrusion on our city aesthetics?
Nor can we escape from these signs in the darkness of night. Our city has taken on the crimson glow of Marlboro lamp boxes in the shape of oversized cigarette packs. They're affixed to nearly every storefront and the light they emit is brighter than our street lamps.
Cigarette companies seem to be quite successful in selling their wares despite their expensive costs. The cheaper, medium priced brands like Viceroy, President and Congress cost about 33 cents (1500 manats) per pack. The foreign imported brands (including Winston, Camel, Kent, Marlboro, Lucky Strike) cost about $1. For us, that's quite an expensive habit to get hooked on since the salaries of average government workers are about $10-$15 a month.
Smoking is the norm, not the exception, especially among the male population in Azerbaijan. Even before these companies started waging advertisement campaigns, the number one killer among men was heart disease. Lung cancer followed second. Both diseases are clearly related to smoking not to mention other respiratory and circulatory complications that are affected by smoking. These diseases sap our nation's vital resources, especially human resources which are irreplaceable.
Women traditionally don't smoke in Azerbaijan. If they do, it's usually not in public. "Good girls don't smoke." That's why during intermission at theaters and concerts halls when men rush to the lobbies to light up, here and there a woman takes a secret drag hidden behind the stalls in the ladies' restroom. Likewise, in the universities.
No Legislature Against Smoking
In our country, we have no legislation to caution about the harmful effects of smoking. Cigarette packages carry no warnings from Surgeon Generals that smoking "may be hazardous to your health", that "cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide", or that "quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health." Nor do our unborn children have any advocates to remind their mothers that "smoking by pregnant women may result in fatal injury, premature birth and low birth weight." There are no restrictions limiting nicotine content in cigarettes to make the habit less addicting and no one stops a kid under 18 from picking up a pack at the corner store front.
Some of the greatest advances in the anti-smoking movement in the West occurred only a few years ago after scientific studies confirmed the fatal danger of inhaling "secondary smoke". Prior to that, people, more or less, had made up their minds that smoking was a personal choice and if you indulged, it was nobody else's business.
But when studies proved them wrong, suddenly smoking became everyone's legitimate concern. But here in Azerbaijan our women, children and men are constantly exposed to "passive smoke"-unaware of the dangers that are in store for them.
There are no anti-smoking campaigns in Azerbaijan to ban smoking from the workplace, taxis, planes, restaurants, and tea houses. Nor are there any legislative regulations against advertising in newspapers, magazines and especially TV, which has a powerful influence on our society and our young people.
We have a new Constitution now which promises us the "right to live and work in a safe and healthy environment". Now, it's up to lay people to convince Parliament to interpret that clause to include a smoke-free atmosphere. Government officials must take responsibility. It's up to Environmental Activists, Architectural Preservationists and Women's Associations to make sure they do.
Though the habit may be impossible to outlaw, there are many ways to discourage smoking. One is to impose extremely heavy taxation and tariffs on cigarettes. Another is to define public space where smoking cannot occur. Another would be to prohibit advertisements. The most effective, however, would be to wage an extremely serious educational campaign to challenge the glamorous image of smoking especially among young people.
It's likely to take a long time before these ideas catch on in Azerbaijan-unfortunately, too long for most of us to hold our breaths without inhaling.
Tofiga Gasimova is a journalist in Baku. Fuad Alekberov, an environmentalist, also contributed to this article.
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