SURGEON General Antonia C. Novello and the Pan American Health Organization warn of vastly more smoking-related diseases in the Americas. Meanwhile, as smoking in the United States decreases, the tobacco industry is pushing hard on sales overseas.
Supported by the US Departments of State and Commerce and the US Trade Representative (USTR), the tobacco sector is fiercely lobbying here and abroad to maintain or secure new markets. In a battle that pits health concerns against profit, it is appalling for US officials to defend tobacco-industry interests.
In Taiwan, the tobacco lobby counted on invervention by USTR Carla Hills to undermine legislation to prevent and control the damage caused by cigarette smoking. In Turkey, US officials managed to develop the tobacco-manufacturing industry so that more US tobacco can be exported. US tobacco firms (reportedly with government assistance) have persistently lobbied European parliamentarians to kill a plan to ban tobacco advertisements in media and on billboards and banish tobacco brand names from the world of
sport and sponsorship.
The example of Taiwan is particularly embarrassing. US trade officials pressured Taiwan not to adopt the ambitious law that includes restriction on smoking in public, a ban on cigarette sales through vending machines, an aggressive public-education campaign, and a complete ban on advertising and promotion. The excuse for the US policy is a 1986 Taiwanese promise to liberalize its market to foreign competition. At the time the promise constituted a major trade breakthrough. Now US officials allege that by
adopting the "Law Governing the Prevention and Control of Damage from Tobacco Use," Taiwan would be breaking its promise of market liberalization. Ironically, the US "free-marketeer" policy de facto supports an already heavily subsidized industry.
In the US, the tobacco lobby is fighting hard to destroy two bills introduced by US Rep. Chet Atkins (D) of Massachusetts, which could seriously undercut tobacco profits overseas: the Cigarette Export Reform Act and the Cigarette Export Labeling Act. The first bill would bar any federal agency from coercing other countries into relaxing cigarette and tobacco laws in order to help American brands. The second would require that the Surgeon General's warning label on exported cigarettes appear in the langua ge of the importing country.
As a letter addressed by the American Heart Association to the US Trade Representative on Taiwan Talks inquires, "Why should our international trade policies be incompatible with our national health policies?" The fact that they are implies that being an economic superpower allows this country deadly intrusions abroad, particularly in developing countries that cannot risk losing access to US markets.
If the proposed European ban survives the tobacco lobbying and receives a European seal of approval, it should serve as a warning to the US: Good sense and responsibility can prevail over multibillion-dollar greed. The narrow vote of support by the European Parliament presented a fresh blow to the tobacco giants. Only two of the countries currently opposing the ban would have to change their minds for the ban to be approved. The minority Danish government is already under pressure in the national parliam ent to switch sides, and Britain's Labour Party ran on a pro-ban platform in last Thursday's general elections. The Commission appears at the brink of a major breakthrough against the US tobacco industry.
US officials should end their alliance with the tobacco industry and start taking health concerns abroad more seriously. It is less than dignifying for an economic superpower to insinuate trade retaliation against countries that are duly trying to protect their citizens from a habit that causes enormous suffering at a tremendous social and economic cost.
The examples of Taiwan and Turkey are shocking, for they represent an effort by the US to blackmail vulnerable economic partners. The resistance to Congressman Atkins's efforts to pass his tobacco-export control bills shows that the US tobacco lobby is far from debilitated. However, the European Parliament vote supporting a tobacco ad ban, though not final, offers hope that the narrow interests of tobacco firms can be foiled.