Charities Decry Proposal To Ban Tobacco Funding
Published: September 26, 2012 (Issue # 1728)
A draft law that would ban tobacco companies from taking part in philanthropic activities has stirred a nationwide debate.
The State Duma will next month review the draft law, which, if passed, would prohibit tobacco companies from donating to charities and taking part in any other philanthropic activities. The plan has fanned the flames of discussion of whether certain sources of donations can be legally qualified as unethical, and has raised concerns about the destructive impact that the law would likely have on the recipients of grants.
According to official statistics, the three largest tobacco companies operating in Russia — British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris — jointly donate about $6 million to the country’s charities every year.
The law’s critics have branded the initiative as hypocritical: The state is comfortable with harvesting high tax revenues from tobacco companies, yet is willing to impose a ban on charity for them, thereby ostracizing their business.
“The quality of a tobacco company’s charitable activity is no different from that of, say, food producers, so the law has a distinct discriminative character,” said Anna Orlova, director of the Resource Center for Non-Governmental Organizations, speaking at a roundtable discussion on the subject at the Astoria hotel Thursday.
“Smoking itself is not a criminal activity, it is not banned by the law,” said Alexander Matrosov, special envoy for JTI in Russia’s northwest. “At the same time, smoking is an activity that is viewed critically by society. The ambiguity of the issue is obvious.”
To what extent would the ban complicate the financial situation of the grants’ recipients? Natalya Chernova, dean of the secondary education faculty at St. Petersburg State University of Aerospace Instrumentation, is convinced that the negative effect of the ban would be felt immediately.
“Let’s face it: The state is not coping with its responsibilities, and it will not be able to in the foreseeable future, so the ban is an irresponsible move. The new equipment for my faculty that we received in the past three years all came through the philanthropic programs of a tobacco company. It is unfair to deprive us of a vital source of funding without even offering an alternative solution.”
Vladimir Matveyev, deputy director of the State Hermitage Museum, who oversees its exhibits and development projects, called the legislative initiative nothing short of bigotry.
“I do not argue with the medical fact that smoking is not good for you,” he said. “Yet the way this fact has been twisted by the law’s authors would only result in creating a conflict in society. The way it looks now, it is likely to do more harm than good. If a business is allowed to operate legally in Russia, then why handicap it and ban it from charity work? Why not fast food chains? They are not very healthy either.
“In the ancient Russian town of Veliky Ustyug, a number of churches were built with financial help from sinners, and they are not seen as less spiritual, let alone demolished or closed down,” he added.
Russia’s Health and Social Development Ministry is also campaigning for a whole string of anti-tobacco initiatives that includes a full ban on smoking in hotels and public places, as well as a ban on the sale of tobacco and beer in retail kiosks — a move that has already been ratified by the State Duma and is due to come into force in January next year.
Russia’s retailers are begging the Duma to reconsider its decision.
Rusbrand is a Moscow-based non-commercial partnership that unites the country’s largest producers of everyday consumer goods. According to the agency’s statistics, between 60 and 80 percent of turnover in Russia’s kiosks comes from the sale of tobacco products and beer. The ban on the sale of these products that is due to start on January 1, 2013, would effectively destroy a huge number of small retail businesses.
“In the Leningrad Oblast, for example, there are places where there is only one kiosk serving quite a large area, and the nearest one would involve a long drive,” said Dmitry Arkatovsky, editor-in-chief of the news portal Online47, which is funded by the administration of the Leningrad Oblast. “If the law is passed, the kiosks will close, which will be a pain for local residents as well.”
According to Rusbrand, at least 150,000 kiosks across Russia will have to close in 2013 because of the tobacco and beer sale ban.
Anastasia Savchenko, a manager at the PricewaterhouseCoopers Corporate Social Responsibility Center at the Graduate School of Management at St. Petersburg State University, believes that a detailed calculation of the impact of the new anti-tobacco amendments on various social and business groups is required.
“Sending multiple protest letters — which is what we can all see going on now — is not going to yield results,” Savchenko said. “It is only by supplying concrete figures reflecting the negative consequences of the laws that people can make themselves heard.”