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In Kazakhstan, Smoking's Not Just For Men Anymore


Many people start smoking only to spend years trying to quit. But so far, Aizhan is unrepentant.

Just 20 years old, the young Almaty native has already been lighting up for three years. She now smokes an average of 10 cigarettes a day -- and sees no reason to stop.

"I fell in love with smoking when I was still in 11th grade," Aizhan says. "I started smoking together with my girlfriends, now I go through a pack of cigarettes every two days. I know that it's bad for my health but I just feel like smoking. I've never tried to quit. I'll think about it later, when I start to raise a family."

Aizhan is part of a growing trend. Until recently, cigarettes were seen as an indulgence enjoyed mainly by Kazakhstan's men. But now, rising spending power and shrinking social stigmas mean more Kazakh women are picking up the habit.

Kazakhstan's Center for the Study of Public Opinion says nearly 10 percent of Kazakh women now smoke cigarettes, up from 7.5 percent in 2001.

The figure is still relatively low, especially compared to Western and Eastern Europe, where roughly one out of every five women is a smoker.

But it's still higher than the regional average of 4 percent among Central Asian women. And it still comes as a shock to Kazakhs like 80-year-old Ramazan Alipbaev, who remembers a time when the few women who smoked tried to do so as discreetly as possible.

"In the 1950s and '60s, all the women who worked at the factories were smokers. They said that smoking helped them not get tired," Alipbaev says. "From time to time you'd see women smoking in places where young people would gather. But most people looked at them with surprise -- so the women tried not to smoke openly. The authorities didn't like smokers. So during the day, before it got dark, women would smoke furtively. They would allow themselves to smoke out in the open only at night, when no one could see them."

'Cheeky' Habit

With more than 220 million hectares of fertile agricultural land, Kazakhstan is home to the richest tobacco production in the former Soviet Union.

Tobacco has always been a part of Kazakh life, although not always in cigarette form. Many Kazakhs, particularly in rural areas, are regular users of nasvai, a smokeless tobacco pellet placed under the tongue or behind the lip.

As a young man living in postwar Kazakhstan, Alipbaev remembers many village women using nasvai -- also known as nos -- to cure toothaches and other ailments.

In the 1990s, with prices skyrocketing after the Soviet collapse, many Kazakhs turned to makhorka, a kind of coarse, low-grade tobacco that could be rolled in newspaper to create makeshift cigarettes.

By then, says 50-year-old Zhandarbek Kaiyrbekov, it had become more acceptable for women to smoke, particularly those taking on new responsibilities as breadwinners in the post-Soviet economic chaos.

"In the 1990s we began to see more and more women smoking out in the open. Before that, generally the only women who smoked were the ones who worked at the markets or at construction sites or in factories," Kaiyrbekov says. "Smoking used to be considered one of the cheekiest things that a young woman or girl could do. There was an unspoken rule that only men could smoke. Now society is used to women smoking."

Different Directions

There is still a significant gender divide when it comes to smoking in Kazakhstan, where roughly half of all men are reported to smoke.

But the number of male smokers is dropping while the number of female smokers is rising. It's a worrying development in the eyes of international groups like the World Health Organization (WHO), which says private tobacco companies and targeted marketing campaigns have led to an alarming rise in the number of female smokers in the former Soviet Union.

A number of major producers, including British-American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco, and Philip Morris, have cigarette plants in Kazakhstan. That means supplies of brand-name cigarettes -- many with female-friendly names like Capri Super Slims, Play, and Sweet Dreams -- are plentiful and cheap, often costing less than a dollar a pack.

The WHO has put tobacco advertising and promotions at the center of its antismoking campaign in 2013. It has also helped put pressure on countries like Kazakhstan to increase public awareness about the dangers of smoking.

In addition to raising the risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, smoking can pose a particular threat to women's health and can contribute to premature delivery and low birth weight in babies born to mothers who smoke.

Health Or Equality?

Until now, however, Kazakhstan has carried no health or warning labels on its tobacco products.

But in recent weeks the government has taken steps to scale back tobacco use, proposing a steep hike in the cigarette sales tax and threatening to ban waterpipes, a popular trend among the country's fashion-minded smokers.

But for some Kazakh women, the importance of personal equality may still trump concerns about health.

A lively debate has emerged on Facebook about the right of women to smoke. "Guys are so quick to blame women who smoke for everything that's wrong in the world," writes one woman who identifies herself as Elvira. "They say we shouldn't smoke, that we're going to be mothers someday. But they're also going to be fathers someday!"

* The text has been amended to remove a reference to the lack of health warnings on cigarette packages.

Written and reported by Daisy Sindelar, with reporting by RFE/RL Kazakh Service correspondent Ruslan Medelbek