Turkmenistan president outlaws all sale of tobacco products, effectively banning smoking altogether

By order of president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow

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The Independent Online

The president of Turkmenistan has banned the sale of all tobacco products, if reports from within the tightly-controlled nation are to be believed.

A new decree allegedly bans the sale of all tobacco products, with shops facing a fine of up to £1,200 (or 6,900 manats in Turkmen currency) if they are caught selling cigarettes. Chrono-TM, an independent website reporting on Turkmen affairs from outside the repressive nation's borders, reports that a black market has sprung up on the streets of the capital, Ashgabat. Contraband packets of cigarettes are already fetching over £8.

The Turkmen media is totally controlled by the government. Reporters Without Borders list Turkmenistan as the country with the third-worst press freedom in the world, with only North Korea and Eritrea ranked as more repressive. (Under President for Life Sapamurat Niyazov, who died in 2006, all TV transissions began with an oath that the broadcaster's tongue would shrivel if he spoke ill of the country, its flag, or the president.)

Nonetheless, word has made it out of the country about the latest policy imposed by the current president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedow. As part of a quasi-personality cult around the President, he is often seen enjoying healthsome outdoor activities such as cycling and fishing, and as such it seems that he does not think much of cigarettes.

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Atadurd Odmanov, the head of the State Service for Protecting the Security of a Healthy Society, was stripped of the rank of Colonel earlier this month for his failure to encourage the smokers of Turkmenistan to quit. Jeremy Hunt's Turkmen counterpart was warned that he would be dismissed form his post outright if he did not do more to combat the scourge of tobacco.

Berdymukhamedow is a little more moderate than his predecessor Niyazov. He has removed bans on the circus and the opera (previously deemed "insufficiently Turkmen"), restored the names of months that Niyazov had renamed after himself and his mother, and permitted cyber-cafes in Ashgabat to offer unrestricted internet access.

However, in general then he remains a rigidly authoritarian ruler. He follows Niyazov's example in banning all political opposition, persecuting religious and ethnic minorities and retaining absolute control of the broadcast media. As the tobaco ban was announced, state-controlled TV showed footage of thousands of packets of cigarettes being incinerated.

It remains to be seen what impact the policy will have on the health of the people of Turkmenistan, where life expectancy is just 65 years. 

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