Ashgabat, a state-owned trading company under the Ministry of Trade and Foreign Economic Relations, imports cigarettes at 0.5 manat ($0.14) per pack, according to copies of the ministerial import licences obtained by ATN. In total, ATN received 13 leaked documents, each granting a licence to import 391,000 packs of cigarettes for 195,500 manats.
The Turkmen customs service imposes an excise duty of 1.75 manats ($0.5) on each pack of imported cigarettes. Therefore, after customs clearance, the cost of a pack of cigarettes is 2.25 manats ($0.64).
In state-owned stores, however, the price of cigarettes to the public is around 40 times higher than the imported cost, at 19 manats ($5.5). And quantities are limited too. A customer can only buy two packs at a time. Elsewhere in commercial stores, cigarettes cost more, up to 35 manats ($10). Reportedly, people queue early in the morning at state-owned stores, to get their hands on the cheaper cigarettes which typically sell out by 9 a.m.
It is unclear who pockets the substantial profits from these transactions.
Armada International (traded in stores as King) and Golden Tulip General Trading (traded as Speed) are among the main suppliers of tobacco products to Turkmenistan. Both are registered in the free economic zone of Ajman, UAE. The Turkish firm European Tobacco (trading as HD, Black Galleon and Vigor) is another large supplier.
Considering the supplier’s transaction costs, the real cost of cigarettes is in fact lower than 14 cents per pack, local observers said.
“Those cigarettes are of low-grade quality, they make you cough and leave a burning sensation in your throat,” said a resident of Bekdash. “It feels as if we are being poisoned with garbage. No wonder people smoking this so-called tobacco are feeling sick.”
Local Balkan merchants find ways to illegally cross the Turkmen-Kazakh border and smuggle other brands of cigarettes that are of slightly better quality, the source said. These cost 30 manats or more per pack.
“Despite the country’s so-called war against smoking and an allegedly increased attention for the population’s health, it is possible to get anything across the border. The main thing is, of course, to negotiate with the customs office,” a local observer said.
Due to the high cost of cigarettes, smokers in Turkmenistan, especially in the capital, have switched to chewing tobacco known as nasvay. Though nasvay is officially banned, people still buy it through underground channels.