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Soviet Cigarette Shortage: After the Cold War - Cold Turkey?

July 29, 1990

MOSCOW (AP) _ Soviets have grudgingly endured scarcities of soap, sugar and shoes. But they are fuming at an economy that has stubbed out their supply of cigarettes.

What is being called the worst cigarette shortage in decades has some smokers doing a slow burn in lines of more than 200 people, while others are expressing their anger with strikes, demonstrations and vandalism.

″Communist Party - Give Us a Light 3/8″ proclaimed a sign at a rally of angry smokers last week in the Ural Mountains city of Perm.

Government officials are blaming the shortage, which began more than a month ago, on various reasons: factories that are shut down for annual summer repairs; a lack of paper, foil, glue and cotton supplies to make the cigarettes; ethnic unrest disrupting a factory in Armenia that produced cotton filters; and reduced purchases of cigarettes from Bulgaria, a key supplier for the Soviet Union.

Hard-core addicts are picking up butts in the streets, puffing dried tea leaves or buying tobacco dust that gardeners use as an insecticide, according to the Worker’s Tribune newspaper.

″Three times I’ve tried to quit, but I almost went mad,″ said Viktor Mayorov as he waited in line for cigarettes in Moscow. ″Tobacco is much worse than vodka. My God, it’s worse 3/8 I can do without vodka but I can’t do without cigarettes.″

The pungent odor of cheap tobacco hangs in most public places in the Soviet Union, a country of 70 million smokers who persist in lighting up despite government warnings and kick-the-habit campaigns in the West.

The shortage has pushed black market prices up. They range from $4.80 for a pack of the most inferior, non-filter brand - about 10 times its official, state-subsidized price - to $12.80 for a pack in Perm’s central market.

Perm’s ″tobacco rebellion″ began at 6 p.m. on July 26 when up to 1,000 people gathered on Lenin Street in front of a smoke shop that hasn’t sold cigarettes for days. They blocked trams, cars and trucks, according to the Interfax news service.

The Worker’s Tribune reported that the crowd grew angry, calling for bureaucrats to come out of their offices; one person suggested smashing the windows of city hall.

A strike committee of 12 was formed, went to city hall and demanded that authorities straighten out the problem, Interfax said. By 7 p.m., the authorities had produced 12,000 packs of cigarettes from an army garrison, which were sold to the dispersing crowd, it added.

″We have to admit that the situation with the sale of cigarettes has gotten out of control,″ G. Karavayev, the head of the regional government, told the Worker’s Tribune. ″But who could think that such things could happen just because of cigarettes?″

Soviet media have chronicled the smoldering discontent:

-Combines halted during the harvest near the Russian city of Krasnodar in early July as farmworkers protested the lack of cigarettes. Similar strikes have been threatened or have occurred in the western Russian cities of Kuibyshev, Berezhniki, Ulyanovsk, Lipetsk and Ufa.

-Smokers tired of lining up for cigarettes blocked the main thoroughfare in the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk on July 23, demanding that authorities restore order in cigarette sales.

-In the city of Voronezh, more than 15 street kiosks were broken into in an apparent search for cigarettes in the latter half of July, according to V. Zvyagintsev, head of Soyuzpechat, which runs the newsstands.

-An aircraft factory in Kuibyshev has a plane prepared to fly to whatever city is selling cigarettes.

″I have heard on the radio about those strikes, like in Kuibyshev, and I think they are right,″ grumbled Valentina V. Nikonorova, 36th in a line of 58 at a tobacco kiosk two blocks from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

The 17-year-old Muscovite said she sometimes waits in line for more than an hour as an unofficial rationing system in Moscow limits city residents to five packs per person and out-of-towners to two packs per person. She claimed authorities were stockpiling cigarettes at storehouses.

Izvestia reported that 16 out of 24 cigarette factories have closed for repairs in the Russian republic alone. It said there were 17 billion fewer cigarettes produced in the first half of 1990, compared with last year.

Economic planners saw the shortage coming last year, but they could do nothing because of a lack of hard currency, Izvestia reported.

The Soviet Union also bought 5 billion fewer cigarettes from Bulgaria this year, Izvestia said, apparently because of its hard currency problems. On July 21, the Council of Ministers decided to dip into its reserves and buy more cigarettes from India and elsewhere, promising relief in a month.

″According to our newspapers, almost all Americans have quit smoking,″ said a man who gave his name as Leonid, who went without cigarettes for five hours before he finally got a pack. ″So it’s time for us to do the same.″

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