Russia: Teen ex-smokers 'hooked on chewing tobacco'

A man holding nas

Russian teenagers are quitting cigarettes - only to inadvertently get hooked on chewing tobacco, it seems.

Russia has banned the sale of nas or nasvai - tobacco mixed with slaked lime and wood ash to form a pellet that, when held under the tongue, packs a powerful nicotine hit. Poor economic migrants from the nas heartland of Central Asia import it largely for their own use, but the authorities are more concerned that its price - at a fraction of that of cigarettes - and the odd myths surrounding it are ensnaring school children.

Ferghana News agency, which covers Central Asian stories from Moscow, says nas is still flying off trestle tables at street-corner markets to the general indifference of local police four months after the ban came into effect. Traders say they never sell to children, but the media regularly report teenagers littering schoolyards with the gobs of green spittle that mark the nas-user - as swallowing it can lead to vomiting and worse. Nationalist politicians are quick to accuse migrants of corrupting youngsters. The MP behind the nas ban claimed 95% of users in Russia are children who get it from "street cleaners", a euphemism for Central Asians who, in fact, remain the overwhelming majority of customers.

But many officials are also concerned about the unregulated spread of nas, as studies worldwide link chewing tobacco to higher rates of mouth cancer. One worry, reports anti-drugs website Narkotiki, is that teenagers confuse nas with nicotine gum, and believe it can help them quit smoking. Health officials also highlight the adulteration of nas, as analysis sometimes reveals traces of chicken excrement, cannabis or heroin. Police in Central Asia's drug-trafficking hotspots say dealers use nas to get youngsters addicted to harder stuff.

Kyrgyzstan is considering whether to tax the trade, while neighbouring Kazakhstan classes it as a drug but hasn't banned its sale. Only authoritarian Turkmenistan has outlawed nas altogether, says human rights site Khronika, although it's still easily obtainable and widespread among teenagers. Official Uzbek youth movement Kamolot recently launched an anti-smoking campaign but makes no mention of nas at all, despite its widespread use. As for Russia, MPs are planning amendments to oblige the police to crack down on nas sellers, Izvestia reports, even though the drug is already illegal. However, campaigners fear that officials simply aren't that interested in nas-users because of their generally low social status.

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