Several international media have pounced with fascination on news that Turkmenistan has seemingly slapped a ban on the sale of cigarettes, but the facts are a little less straightforward.
The offensive against tobacco began earlier this month, when President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov demanded “an intensification in the measures being taken to root out smoking.”
To drive his point home, he publicly chastised the head of the state service for the protection of public health, Atadurdy Osmanov and demoted him by one military rank. (The name of Osamov’s agency is a little misleading — although it sounds like a branch of the health service, it is actually the renamed anti-narcotics agency, another strand of the law enforcement structures in effect).
After Osmanov’s dressing down, cigarettes began disappearing from the shops, even though no law had been passed or any official order issued to make their sale illegal. Hardened smokers could still get their fix under the table from shopkeepers, although prices per pack have reportedly shot up from $6 previously to around $12-14.
Dogmatic opposition to smoking among the authorities goes back a long way.
The late President Saparmurat Niyazov, who died of heart failure in late 2006, banned smoking in all public places in 2000. In doing so, he acted with the typical zeal of a former smoker. After being operated on for heart problems, he was told by doctors to give up cigarettes, which is when he decided to try and extend the prohibition to all his subjects.
Similarly, when Berdymukhamedov came to power, he was notably on the chunky side. Since then, he has embarked on an exercise drive that has visibly slimmed him down. Accordingly, he has become an energetic proponent for healthy living.
Except that there may be a little more to the fight against cigarettes than meets the eye.
State television on January 15 broadcast the faintly surreal sight of diplomats, village elders, representatives of the local media and students shoveling narcotics and blocks of cigarettes onto a pyre.
Before airing the demonstrative act, state television showed a news report about the capture of a group of people accused of illegally smuggling cigarettes into Turkmenistan. The group included two businessmen, an official with the customs service and an representative of the government standards agency. As the report explained, the businessmen bought the cheap and low-quality cigarettes abroad, the customs official took bribes to look the other way and the standards agency official provided certification to ensure the goods could be sold in shops.
Items confiscated from the group included their smuggled wares, a premium class car and a large hoard of local- and foreign-denominated banknotes.
The television report included on-camera confessions — a much-loved Niyazov-era practice.
The customs service has come in for some flak from the president recently — a line of criticism that may have been linked to the cigarette-smuggling issue.
At a January 15 Cabinet meeting, Berdymukhamedov demanded that more be done to ensure that fake and low-quality goods stop filtering into the country without proper authorization.
Contrary to banning cigarettes, Berdymukhamedov said that he wants permits for their import to now be placed under the responsibility of the Foreign Trade and Economic Relations Ministry. And certification for those cigarettes must now come from the health ministry before the standards agency gets to have a look-in.
Tighter regulation of the import and sale of cigarettes could have two outcomes.
It could lead to a de facto ban, since the bureaucratic hurdles will be so high.
If we are to believe official figures, which have also been seemingly vouchsafed by the World Health Organization, this would not affect a huge amount of people, since only 8 percent of the population are said to be regular smokers.
All the same, those determined to smoke will want their fix and without a ban against their favored pastime in place, the market will survive.
In which case, the business will simply be handed over to trusted figures. In a place as opaquely run as Turkmenistan, any such people will invariably be close to the authorities, which suggests the crusade against smoking may be less about health and more about money.