State Duma deputies have taken a step that could leave Central Asians in Russia without one of their favorite forms of tobacco.
The legislature included a ban on "nasvai," a smokeless tobacco produced across Central Asia, in Russia's new antismoking bill as it passed its second reading on January 25.
The ban is not certain -- the draft has to pass more legislative hurdles and presidential approval to become law -- but Central Asian migrants in Russia have reason to believe it targets them.
One reason is the way the clause was added to the bill at the last moment.
A delegate from Russia's right-wing Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, proposed banning nasvai, also known as "nos," as necessary to protect Russian youths.
LDPR Deputy Dmitry Nosov said that 95 percent of users of nasvai in Russia are children and teenagers who purchase it because it costs a fraction of the price of cigarettes. The usage figure could not immediately be independently verified.
The LDPR deputy went on to charge that children could easily buy nasvai from any "street cleaner" in Moscow. That was only the thinnest of veiled references to Central Asian migrant workers, whom the nationalist party regularly blames for many of Russia's social ills.
'A Better High'
The use of nasvai in Russia has long been associated almost exclusively with Central Asian migrants. The tobacco, which is sucked in pellet form and then spit out, is produced in Central Asia and brought to Russia by seasonal workers and fruit traders. It is commonly sold in bazaars rather than licensed tobacco shops.
Many nationalist Russians commonly stereotype Central Asian migrants as having objectionable social habits, and using and spitting nasvai is among them.
Amid the news that nasvai could be banned if the new antismoking bill passes, some Central Asians on January 25 vowed never to give up their habit.
"I will use my nasvai until I run out of it," a migrant worker in Moscow, who identified himself only as Alisher from Uzbekistan, told RFE/RL. "There are so many of our countrymen here. Whenever I ask them if they have nasvai, they say we will find it for you. One small pouch costs 50 rubles. Most of us use it instead of smoking cigarettes because it gives you a better high."
Packets of the chewable form of tobacco known as "nas" or "nasvai" to many Central Asians.
Nasvai is currently legal in Russia and most of Central Asia. It is manufactured by small private businesses across Central Asia from a mix of ingredients that are legal but have long raised health concerns.
The typical recipe for nasvai is a mix of tobacco dust, gum, slaked lime, water, and oil. It also can contain chemical flavorings and colorings. A pellet is usually placed under the lower and upper lips or tongue and kept in the mouth for 10 to 15 minutes.
The product is particularly popular among youths in Central Asia because it is as cheap as sunflower seeds. The price of a packet of nasvai containing 30 pellets varies in Central Asia from the equivalent of five to 10 U.S. cents, and in Russia is around $3.
Nasvai is controversial in Central Asia despite its widespread use for centuries. All governments in Central Asia have debated on occasion whether to ban it, but only one has done so. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a decree in 2008 prohibiting its implementation, production, or use.
Health experts say nasvai's consumption can only cause headaches, apathy, and heartburn. But there are also concerns that extended use can cause more serious problems such as tongue and lip cancer.
"Nasvai has a bad effect on people's health. It is banned in a number of countries, so we are considering the same measures," Vladimir Levshin, a professor and member of Russia's Anticancer Union, told RFE/RL. "I can't tell you the whole chemical composition of nasvai, but I know that they add God-knows-what, including chalk-stone and tobacco, of course. In Central Asia, nasvai consumption has led so many people to develop mouth cancer."
RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report