BEIJING — A NEW frontier is opening up for world cigarette-makers.
While under attack from anti-smoking advocates and government officials at home, multinational tobacco companies are finding refuge and a profitable future in the smoky offices and restaurants, butt-strewn streets, and tobacco billboards of China.
The 300 million Chinese smokers - one-quarter of the country's population - are the major prize for cigarette manufacturers in an Asian market projected to grow 35 percent during this decade, according to figures cited by the World Health Organization.
According to statistics and projections in the official Chinese press, cigarette consumption by Chinese adults increased more than 5 percent annually during the 1980s and is likely to accelerate, particularly among women and those under 20.
Due to economic changes, which have brought a measure of prosperity to many Chinese, people can now afford to buy cigarettes, including foreign brand names. Many women, no longer held down by rigid social conformity, are experimenting with tobacco, according to Chinese news reports.
As cigarette sales in the United States fall steadily, tobacco companies are luring Chinese youths with Marlboro Man and other appeals to the Western image of the sophisticated smoker, critics and government officials say.
Philip Morris, which produces Marlboro cigarettes and is China's largest advertiser, saw sales in its foreign markets grow more than 15 percent last year while foreign profits grew commensurately. The company has signed an agreement with the government-run China National Tobacco Corporation to make a range of Philip Morris brands in China.
Although the government has banned cigarette ads on radio and television and in the print media, foreign producers are sponsoring sporting events, art exhibitions, and other promotions aimed at a youthful audience.
``Teenagers want to try whatever grown-ups do not advocate. They take smoking as having individuality and maturity,'' says Zhang Jinfeng, an official with the State Education Commission. ``Smoking is a fad. Many middle school students think smokers are he-men.''
``Young Chinese are rapidly developing a taste for Western consumer products, in particular foreign cigarettes which they think give them a sophisticated image,'' says Judith Mackay, a doctor and leading anti-smoking campaigner based in Hong Kong.
But doctors and other critics say the human cost of the cigarette boom will be high. With the age of smoking falling in countries like China, children will be the most affected.
According to the official Guangming Daily, more than 34 percent of smokers are teenagers over the age of 15. Already 35 percent of those 12 to 15 years of age smoke while 10 percent of nine- to 12 year-olds smoke.
Richard Peto, an epidemiologist at Oxford University, predicts annual deaths from smoking-related illnesses will increase from 3 million to 10 million by 2050. Among Chinese children under the age of 20 today, 50 million will die of cigarette-related illnesses, he adds.
Like Thailand, South Korea and Taiwan before, China is seeing a fledgling anti-smoking campaign emerging to counter the lure of cigarettes. China is bidding to host the 10th World Conference on Tobacco and Health planned by the World Health Organization in 1997.
Major cities such as Beijing and Tianjin have launched efforts to educate young people on the dangers of smoking. Also, some efforts are under way to ban smoking in public transport and in public places. The government has prominently announced that paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, a lifetime smoker, has quit along with other members of the Communist Party's standing committee.
``China should play a major role in global action against smoking as the country with a quarter of the world's smokers,'' says Wen Xinzhi, chairman of the Chinese Association of Tobacco and Health.
But the government, which foreign critics say has failed to take a clear-cut stand on the issue, has a conflict of interest. Cigarette production is China's most lucrative industry, with Chinese buying 1.6 trillion cigarettes yearly and only 1 percent of smokers using foreign brands.
Tax payments and profits totaled $4.7 billion in 1993, up from $3.5 billion in 1992. That important source of state revenue is projected to rise to $6.9 billion by the turn of the century, according to Pan Bixing, an official of the State Administration of Tobacco Monopoly, as quoted in Economic Information Daily.
An important cash crop for China's predominantly rural population, farmland planted in tobacco has increased 10 times to 1.6 million hectares in the last three decades, says the State Statistical Bureau.