Prague, 28 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Jyldyz, a teenager living in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, doesn't smoke. But she says many people her age do -- and that cigarettes are getting more and more popular.
"Young people, most of them, think smoking is fashionable. But [cigarettes] don't make them more attractive. It doesn't improve their shape. It has no use at all. [Many teenage girls] are hiding to smoke -- behind trees, in lavatories, and in other places like that," Jyldyz said.
Smoking-related lung disease is the second-highest cause of death in Kyrgyzstan, after heart disease.
The problem has led a group of Kyrgyz NGOs to form "Smoke-Free Kyrgyzstan," a coalition dedicated to educating people -- particularly youth -- about the dangers of tobacco use.
"Young people, most of them, think smoking is fashionable. But [cigarettes] don't make them more attractive. It doesn't improve their shape. It has no use at all. [Many teenage girls] are hiding to smoke -- behind trees, in lavatories, and in other places like that."
Denis Vinnikov, from the Kyrgyzstan-Finland Lung Health Program, reports that tobacco kills more than 10,000 people in the Central Asian nation every year.
"According to the WHO [eds: World Health Organization], in 2002, 64.1 percent of people between 18 and 65 in Kyrgyzstan smoked. Since 1998, the number of Kyrgyz women who smoke has increased from only 15 [percent] to 41.4 [percent]. According to the Kyrgyz Health Ministry, between 12,000 and 15,000 people die every year from smoking," Vinnikov said.
The problem has even caught the attention of the country's leadership. Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev addressed the issue during a government meeting this week.
Akaev said the rise in commercial advertising has contributed to the rise in the use of cigarettes and other addictive substances. "When I walk in the streets of our capital, I see enormous amounts of commercial advertising for tobacco products and alcohol. I think this has contributed considerably to the increasing number of drinking, smoking, and drug-addicted people in our country over the past several years," Akaev said.
Tobacco companies have been increasingly active in promoting their products, usually through advertising that depicts cigarette smoking as glamorous and sophisticated.
Batma Estebesova, who heads one of the NGOs involved in Smoke-Free Kyrgyzstan, says teenagers -- particularly teenage girls -- are highly susceptible to such advertising strategies:
"[Advertising] gives us a sense of gaining prestige and value [from smoking]. That is why a lot of people, women, and teenage girls, are smoking," Estebesova said.
Tobacco advertising is not permitted on radio and television in many parts of the world -- but it is in Kyrgyzstan.
And while locally produced cigarettes are required to carry health warnings on their packaging, the more prestigious imports are not required to translate their warnings into Kyrgyz.
Asylbek is a teenage boy in Bishkek. "I don't mind whether [people] smoke. Why wouldn't they smoke? It is up to them. I think it's possible that smoking helps people to relax, to put their minds at rest. Maybe that's why they smoke," Asylbek said.
With no strict regulations on tobacco advertising in Kyrgyzstan, tobacco companies are using a wide range of marketing strategies to attract new customers.
Some firms hire young men and women to dress in the colors of a particular brand and hand out cigarettes on the street.
Others have gone so far as to put cash inducements inside random packages of cigarettes -- sometimes as much as 1,000 soms ($23) -- hoping to tempt consumers to stay with their brand.
Smoking has generally declined in high-income countries, where governments have adopted strict regulations, supported tobacco control programs, and increased taxation on tobacco sales.
France has a total ban on tobacco advertising except at the place where the cigarettes are sold. Norway and Ireland have imposed a total ban on smoking in public places. In Britain, tobacco taxes have left smokers spending nearly $8 for a pack of cigarettes.
(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report.)