Up in smoke

Ukraine is a heavy smoker – that’s no secret, and anyone who’s ever been will know that smoking is pretty much a national sport. According to a report published in 2009,‘Ukraine has about 16.5 million smokers and one of the highest rates of male smoking prevalence in the world’.

Cigarettes are advertised everywhere, cigarettes are cheap, you can smoke inside (almost anywhere) and cigarette brands even manufacture a wide range of trendy brands to cater for the huge market of fashion conscious Ukrainian smokers. Slims, menthols, normal cigarettes with a menthol ‘button’, super slims, apple slims, rainbow coloured slims with golden filters, cigarettes without filters… Marlborough white, silver, gold… the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, as we all know, smoking isn’t a healthy habit and tobacco-related diseases are believed to be responsible for approximately 115,000 premature deaths a year. That’s a lot in a country with a declining life expectancy and population.

The cost to the Ukrainian economy is obviously huge, but while I was reading some other blog about Ukraine last week, I realised this was part of a bigger trend. The author explained that, in Ukraine…

“Financial literacy is generally quite low even among intellectuals. When ordinary Ukrainians start making decent money, they tend to “waste” it on friends and relatives rather than hold on to it to build personal wealth.”

This certainly seems to be true in my experience too, and I’m sure it explains the ridiculous number of high-end luxury jeeps and cars which Ukrainians drive. Ukrainians don’t often save and they don’t invest so much in the future – they live for the moment and they want everyone to know about it.

In some cases, and certainly on a personal level, this short-term ‘live for the day’ approach to money is endearing. Extravagance at weddings and birthdays etc is as fun as it is frivolous and on more than one occasion I’ve heard Ukrainians complain that westerners are ‘penny pinchers’ and not generous etc. We’re ‘boring’ and cold.

The same goes for efficiency and economizing. Heating in the cities comes on in October and stays on, full-blast, until it gets warm again. If you want to cool down, you have to open the window.  I once heard another story about a Ukrainian who went to London and was outraged because the family she was staying with told her not to take a long shower because it used all the hot water. This was interpreted by the unhappy Ukrainian (whose was presumably used to un-metered and therefore unlimited hot water and heating) as supreme stinginess.  How can the UK possibly limit something as simple as hot-water?, right?  Our little princess was not happy with the idea of individual restraint.

It seems that western Europeans and Ukrainians really are at different ends of the spectrum on some things. Efficiency and conservation are not concepts that are taken very seriously, if at all, here.

Sadly, despite all this extravagance, the reality is that Ukraine is not a wealthy country and it is a country which is desperately in need of investment. Yet, every time a Ukrainian gets his or her hands $20K they blow it on a Mercedes and make German pension funds ever richer. What money they have left literally goes up in smoke, either fueling a 4 liter engine or fueling a 20-a-day smoking habit.


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