By Nane Atshemian
The Armenian authorities’ ongoing efforts to curb widespread smoking found on Wednesday an unlikely backer in the principal owner of the country’s two biggest cigarette manufacturers.
Hrant Vartanian, a tobacco magnate with close government connections, lent his support to a bill that would ban smoking inside buildings belonging to the government and other public institutions.
“Some say, ‘My grandfather is 90 and he always smoked’. But I will say a different thing: a cigarette user is sick for life,” Vartanian told parliament hearings on the draft legislation tentatively approved by the National Assembly last week.
The chain-smoking tycoon and his family have controlling stakes in the Grand Tobacco and International Masis Tobacco companies that account for nearly half of cigarette sales in Armenia. The companies have also revived tobacco farming in the country, both using the crop for their own production operations and selling it to Western tobacco manufacturers.
The hearings attended by Vartanian were organized by the parliament committees on healthcare and social affairs that co-authored the anti-smoking bill. As well as outlawing smoking in public buildings, it toughens the existing ban on televised tobacco advertising which is widely flouted by local TV channels. Cigarette sales to individuals aged under 18 would also be deemed illegal.
The bill was passed in the first reading after being twice rejected by lawmakers, among them several wealthy cigarette importers, earlier this year. It is due to be debated in the second and final readings later this year.
The parliament panels heard testimony from several medical experts who expressed concern at growing tobacco use and the resulting health risks. According to the World Health Organization, Armenia has the highest incidence of tobacco-related disease and smoking among men in Europe. Nearly two thirds of male Armenians are regular smokers. The percentage of smoking women is much lower but is believed to be growing rapidly.
“We are talking about a real drug addiction,” said Emil Gabrielian, a prominent physician.
Vilen Hakobian, the rector of Armenia’s State Medical University and himself a smoker, said anti-smoking propaganda alone will not remedy the problem and backed the proposed administrative measures. “We are all aware of the negative effects of smoking, but our struggle against it has been very ineffective,” he complained.
(Photolur photo: Hrant Vartanian.)