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Russia's High-Tar Tasters Live and Breathe Cigarettes

July 19, 2000|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YELETS, Russia — Through waxy red lips, Larissa Solovyova expels a heavy cloud of acrid-smelling smoke, which wafts like a small thundercloud by her face. She thrusts her nose into the smoke, sniffing heavily, her face stern with concentration.

She says it takes years of practical smoking classes at Russia's main tobacco university to learn to smoke correctly. Even after five years of study there, her palate was green and inexperienced.

Solovyova, 45, takes another pull on one of Russia's roughest cigarettes, dubbed papirosi, inhaling for so long that the end flares brightly.

"You just breathe it in as deeply as possible into your lungs," she says. "This is the final inhalation, to see how strong it is."

Solovyova isn't smoking for pleasure. It is the most important part of her job. She and four other members of the Yelets tobacco factory "degustation committee" take their work--as quality barometers of high-tar cigarettes--seriously.

"I've been smoking 48 years, and I never tried to quit. All my conscious life has been devoted to this," says the committee chairman, Anatoly Topekha.

"He taught me everything I know," Solovyova says humbly. "He taught me to memorize the flavor specifics of each tobacco and the sensory perceptions that a smoker has while smoking. It's a complicated process."

The pair have matching smokers' coughs, barking into their hands from time to time.

Solovyova and Topekha are testing Belomorkanal papirosi, made of fifth-grade tobacco. No one in Russia is making papirosi of lower-grade tobacco than Belomorkanal, a big seller for the Yelets factory, which makes 5 billion papirosi and other cigarettes a year.

Papirosi are peculiarly Russian, popular among the poor, prisoners and soldiers. Instead of a filter, each one has a long hollow cardboard tube that smokers squash flat at both ends before lighting up.

Even as cigarette sales decline in the United States, Russians smoke 265 billion cigarettes annually--about 1,800 per capita--and the figure is expected to rise 1% to 1.5% this year.

Smoking is much more common among men than women, although young women, particularly in Moscow, are taking up smoking in increasing numbers. Among men ages 30 to 34, 72% smoke, and 59.8% of males older than 15 smoke. The comparable figure for females older than 15 is 9.1%.

In mortality rates for cardiovascular disease, cancer and infectious diseases, Russia ranks second highest in the world among 140 countries, behind Hungary. Another former Soviet bloc country, Latvia, is in third place.

Last year, 63,092 Russians died of lung or throat cancer, and health authorities blame 90% of the cases on smoking. In the same year, 2,355,658 died of cardiac disease, and 25% of these fatalities are blamed on smoking.

Not deterred, Solovyova's committee meets every Thursday at 2 p.m. in this town 220 miles south of Moscow to smoke for one to two hours, randomly testing all the factory's products and all the raw tobacco to be used in production.

The papirosi and filterless cigarettes that the company turns out have very high tar levels. For its Prima cigarettes, the level is 22 milligrams of tar per cigarette. There is no regulation in Russia governing the amount of tar in papirosi such as Belomorkanal. The committee members couldn't say how much tar the papirosi had but acknowledged that it's harder to reduce the tar in them.

While Western cigarette companies also have regular panel samplings of cigarettes for subjective values such as taste, their products are much lower in tar, often around the 12-milligram mark or lower, and they use machines rather than the Russian deep inhalation method to test for strength. Typically, testers don't smoke raw tobacco samples, as the Russian panels do.

"It is hard when we are tasting for more than an hour," Solovyova says. "Sometimes we take a 10-minute break to revive." The committee members avoid spicy foods on Thursdays and drink weak black tea at testing sessions to refresh their exhausted palates.

Topekha insists that the work isn't harmful and doesn't lead to disease because "tobacco leaves the body very quickly."

"According to the latest research from the Academy of Medical Science [in Russia], tobacco is useful for your body in certain quantities," he asserts. "Tar is hazardous, but nicotine is not."

Belomorkanal papirosi were launched in 1933 to commemorate the opening of the White Sea-Baltic Sea canal, a project Russians today associate with the 300,000 gulag prisoners who died building it.

Solovyova, who says her salary is a commercial secret, is the chief tobacco engineer at the factory and, when she isn't smoking, is responsible for quality control of papirosi and cigarettes, labels and boxes.

She takes her job so seriously that even off duty she smokes only Yelets tobacco factory products: Belomorkanal papirosi, Prima cigarettes made of fourth-grade tobacco and Yeletskiye filter cigarettes. Smoking the product full time, she says, improves her work on the degustation committee.

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