Bulgaria’s smoking schizophrenia

Bulgaria, which a few months ago enacted tough new laws against smoking in public places, has vowed to defend its Oriental tobacco production industry, fearing job losses; and the same country whose health ministers have aligned it to international campaigns against smoking continues to see billboards advertising cigarettes on its streets, and its domestic producer with climbing profits.

Perhaps, in legislating against smoking while defending its tobacco industry,Bulgaria is merely following the time-honoured principle of NIMBY – not in my back yard. The country’s health care system is hardly the world’s finest, and could do without the burden of treating patients with illnesses associated with smoking. At the same time, Sofia wants the domestic excise and export earnings from tobacco products.

Bulgaria joined other Balkan countries in raising its voice against reported moves by the European Commission’s health and consumer protection directorate-general to ban the production of Oriental tobacco in the European Union. The World Health Organization wants to see global tobacco production cut.

At a meeting on September 14 in the Macedonian capital city ofSkopje, organised by the International Tobacco-Growers Organisation, tobacco farmers from Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Turkey spoke out against World Health Organization recommendations to cut tobacco production, saying that this would put at risk the livelihood of thousands of families but would do nothing to reduce smoking.

Local media reported Macedonia’s agriculture minister Ljupco Dimovski as saying that tobacco production would continue and subsidies would continue to be paid for it.

His Bulgarian counterpart, Agriculture and Food Minister Miroslav Naidenov, was equally adamant.

As reported by public broadcaster Bulgarian National Television, Naidenov said that Bulgaria would be particularly affected by an Oriental tobacco production ban because the country was in first place in the world in production of the variety.

About 200 000 people would lose their jobs and entire areas of Bulgaria would be depopulated, the report said.

“We will firmly support the producers of oriental tobacco and their means of living,” Naidenov said on September 16 in an interview with local media. “During the talks I held, the producers were explicit that they place trust in the Bulgarian state and the institutions, and believe that their interests would be protected, and that we will not allow these regions become depopulated. If these people are deprived of their means of living, of something they have been doing all their lives, these beautiful regions will be depopulated,” he said.

National Tobacco Growers Association head Tsvetan Filev told local news agency Focus the same day that the fight to protect Oriental tobacco production would not be an easy one, and certainly would be a long one.

Speaking of prolonged fights means a return to the topic ofBulgaria’s public smoking ban.

On June 1 2012, Bulgaria’s anti-smoking laws were expanded to cover all enclosed public spaces, meaning – among other places – restaurants and bars. These laws were opposed by many in Bulgaria’s hospitality industry, who claimed that the stricter rules would cost them customers and profits.

However, the fact that the law came into effect as summer began in the northern hemisphere may have diluted the effect. The warm weeks of summer have meant that it has been possible for smokers to dine, drink and smoke outdoors, but, as Game of Thrones might have it, winter is coming.

A recent report by television station bTV picked up on this topic, saying that health inspectors had returned to the warpath (the first days of June saw high-profile inspections) and were checking up on restaurants’ and bars’ compliance with the law.

A Sofia restaurant that was bust – complete with hazy smoke and full ashtrays – was set to pay a fine of 3000 to 5000 leva (about 1500 to 2500 euro) because it was a second offence. However, according to the report, the restaurant’s owner was insistent that she would not comply with the law. Earlier compliance had lost her customers and had left her unable to pay staff, according to the report.

Sofia’s metropolitan health inspectorate said that with the coming of winter, it expected to receive more tip-offs about places of entertainment that were not obeying the law.

At the same time, Bulgarian-language media have reported that for all the stated policy against smoking, public advertising of cigarettes remained commonplace. InSofiaand other major cities, streets and malls boasted billboards featuring faces such as that of popular local actor Yulian Vergov (Stuklen Dom, Mission London) promoting a well-known Bulgarian brand of cigarette.

Those who express concern about such public advertising of cigarettes in Bulgaria point to the country’s relatively high rate of smoking among teenagers, adding that the age at which Bulgarian children have their first cigarettes has dropped, from a previous fifth to sixth grade to fourth to fifth grade.

At the same time, a report released in late August 2012 showed tobacco giant Bulgartabac having improved its profits more than eightfold year-on-year to 27 million leva in the first half of this year (it is notable, of course, that just more than 80 per cent of Bulgartabac’s products are exported while two per cent of its profits come not from finished cigarettes but from the export of tobacco leaves and Oriental tobacco).

Smokers in Bulgaria, meanwhile, are watching with interest – perhaps even hope, informed by backtracking on smoking bans by some other European countries in the past – whether Parliament will heed to pressure to ease the ban on smoking in public places.

However Quixotic their attempt, a small number of independent MPs are trying to force a confrontation on the issue. Earlier in September, Cyril Gumnerov and Stoyan Ivanov said that they would be tabling legislation on the matter.

Gumnerov, a non-smoker, said that his objection to the current law was that it was too strict. Instead, he said, there should be phased approach, including allowing restaurants to have smoking areas – but in turn requiring restaurants that adopted this option to pay higher taxes.

The approach that Gumnerov and Ivanov intend taking, they said, was deliberately provocative. They would table a law criminalising the production and sale of tobacco products in Bulgaria, to provoke a response to the contradiction that the country wanted to discourage smoking while at the same time wanting to earn excise duties from tobacco.

(Photo Gabriella Fabbri/ sxc.hu)



Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.