Unbridled tobacco advertising - promoting an affluent Western lifestyle - is everywhere in Kyrgyz towns and cities. Earlier this month, ten local Kyrgyz NGOs established a new coalition dedicated to combating smoking - one of the leading causes of premature deaths in the country. The coalition hopes to stimulate a national anti-smoking drive as cigarettes continue to grow in popularity, particularly among the young, despite the proven health risks associated with the habit.
"Our main aim is to unite material, financial and human resources to stop tobacco proliferation. Today 60 percent of men and 40 percent of woman smoke. In addition, 20 percent of children aged 13-15 smoke," Chinara Bekbazarova, the chair of the coalition, told IRIN in the capital, Bishkek. Unlike in most Western nations, smoking is on the increase throughout much of Central Asia.
The Kyrgyz Health Ministry estimates that in the past decade the number of men who smoke has doubled and the number of women regularly using cigarettes has more than tripled. This in a country where the average monthly wage is no more than US $50. Research on smoking trends in developing countries shows money for cigarettes tends to come from meager household budgets - often at the expense of food.
International tobacco companies are aware of this trend and have been diverting resources towards promoting tobacco in "emerging markets" such as China, India and Central Asia. The summer streets of Bishkek are frequented by attractive young men and women smartly dressed in the colors of a particular brand. Their job is to recruit new, preferably young, smokers, by offering a combination of free cigarettes and other merchandise as well as entry to free competitions.
"Just collect 40 empty boxes of our brand and we'll give you a free packet of 20," the tobacco couples call out to shoppers, adding that "pens, calendars, key rings [bearing the company logo] are also available."
In Kyrgyzstan, mortality from smoking-related lung disease is second only to heart disease. "About 40 percent of these diseases are a direct result of smoking, so the consequences are obvious," Dmitry Shainazarov, a doctor at the Republican Clinic Hospital in Bishkek, told IRIN.
New tactics to encourage smoking are being tried by the tobacco companies. One marketing gimmick is to put money inside some cigarette boxes. "I used to buy three or four cigarettes per day, but when Polet [brand] begun to put money inside the box I started to buy a whole box each day in order to try and win a cash prize," Andrey, a student at Kyrgyz National University, told IRIN.
"You can win 86,000 soms [US $ 2,050] each month in this competition. That's big money," one smoker told IRIN while handing over cash for five packets at a cigarette-box shaped kiosk. Huge posters in the centre of Bishkek confirm this.
Tobacco advertising on television and radio is completely unrestricted in Kyrgyzstan. The adverts promote an image of glamour and sophistication that many aspiring Kyrgyz are happy to buy into. "Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia where tobacco advertising in the mass media, TV or on the streets is not prohibited," said Bekbazarova.
Children and teenagers are the most susceptible to tobacco advertising campaigns. Near the capital's most prestigious supermarket there's always a huge group of young people admiring a sports car, parked on a stand at a racy angle, bearing the logo of West cigarettes - a popular local brand.
"It is very interesting. Maybe I can win the car or other prizes," said 13-year-old Ilzat. Although children cannot participate directly in such competitions, they put as much pressure on their parents as possible to enter on their behalf.
"You see how strongly it [tobacco advertising] influences my child. He has been crazy gathering empty cigarette boxes and I suspect he is already smoking the cigarettes," Ilzat's mother remarked. This would not be a problem as no legislation exists preventing the sale of tobacco products to children and young people.
In common with many other developing nations, cigarettes packets on sale in Kyrgyzstan do not carry health warnings. "So what? Why it is bad if a child buys cigarettes? Perhaps he or she does it for his father?" a street vendor shading herself beneath a Marlboro parasol, asked.
The new anti-smoking alliance also wants to promote education campaigns that show the reality of tobacco's impact on health. "At the moment everyone is listening to the big cigarettes companies. Their resources are limitless. The government has to be more responsible and acknowledge the health risks and tell the public, otherwise in a generation our young people will mostly die young," Bekbazarova said.
IRIN, July 20, 2004