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When Philip Morris (PM) signed up former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher as a part time consultant on a three year contract reportedly worth US$2 million, one of her first tasks was to travel to Kazakhstan, to help persuade its leaders to sell PM a major stake in the state tobacco company. The minister for agriculture proposed selling off only 40% of the company, but President Nazarbayev overruled him and PM got total control over the former state tobacco factory.
Since then, PM's influence has, if anything, become even more powerful, and some journalists, having no doubt learned during the country's recent history to take a cynical look behind the official line, refer to the Kazakhstan government as “the public relations department of Philip Morris”. Most outrageous of its achievements, many believe, was when the government decided to designate a day of memory to honour victims of mass hunger in the 1930s, when about half of the population died. It could have chosen any day of the year, but the one selected from the 365 available was May 31. Not surprisingly, since 1996, World No Tobacco Day has been totally ignored in Kazakhstan. Health advocates, convinced this was not by chance, see it as a classic piece of tobacco industry hypocrisy to use victims of hunger to forget about victims of tobacco.
Representatives of PM have direct contact with President Nazarbayev and he has openly helped them to solve tax and customs problems. When smuggled cigarettes produced in the USA were captured at the airport, the names of the companies involved were not disclosed. Robert May, PM's representative in Almaty, estimated that the state budget loses US$1.3 million each year from smuggling, and promised rewards for customs officers. When the speaker of the Kazakh parliament called for an increase in tobacco taxes last year (excise tax is extremely low, less than a third of the rate in the Ukraine), the only result was a significant increase in import duties on tobacco imported from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
There is a great deal of tobacco advertising on television, and streets are overwhelmed by billboards featuring the Marlboro man, together with some “prevention” messages, in which PM appeals to underage smokers to “make the right choice”. In the government's draft “Health of the Nation” programme, however, tobacco is ignored.