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Uzbekistan: who's in charge now?

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The disintegration of the former Soviet Union into separate nation states was accompanied by an unruly stampede by the transnational tobacco companies, falling over themselves to buy up the formerly state owned tobacco factories. Was it just the opportunity to take over going concerns at knock down prices, or more the chance to get into markets that had been denied them up to that time? Or was the most attractive feature the already high smoking rates, resulting from years of negligible health education and the implicit promotion of tobacco as an essential part of human existence, which along with alcohol was used as a regulator of cash in the economy? All these were no doubt obvious attractions at the time, but there is another which, at least to observers in the health professions, is only now beginning to be fully understood.

Cigarette advertising in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

When companies such as British American Tobacco (BAT) moved into the countries euphemistically known as the new democracies of Europe, they were, in actual fact, moving into cultures little changed from the former Soviet times. They were buying not only the factories, the markets and the labour, but passports to unfettered action as well. For while these nations' economies were quickly transformed from the former “socialist”, centrally planned economic systems into market economies, the culture that accompanied them remained—and continues to remain—remarkably intact. Power controlled by a small, mostly unelected elite, protected from criticism and lionised as economic saviours; an almost total freedom of action, with no real accountability for the consequences; and censorship of the news media: these were among the old, “red” culture's distinctive features. Ironically, if the actors have changed, the basic scenery and script remain largely recognisable, and the very infrastructure that barred the way of the tobacco companies in …

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