BANGKOK — In Beijing, young cyclists race in the blue and white colors of Kent cigarettes, cheered on by fans wearing sun visors emblazoned with ''Kent.''
In Bangkok, children play with toy racing cars bearing the logo of Japan's Mild Seven tobacco company. Philip Morris hands out fine-arts prizes to young competitors in several Southeast Asian capitals.
Multinational tobacco companies are forging aggressively into Asia, looking to the region's vast young population and booming economies to offset the loss of business in the West.
Over the criticism of health activists, the companies are getting their products known to young people by sponsoring sports, music, and cultural events that effectively elude bans on direct advertising.
In defending marketing tactics, tobacco companies say they never target children and contend their campaigns are aimed at getting adults to stay with their brand or to switch from other brands.
Asian girls in particular, however, could mean big profits for tobacco companies. Very few now smoke, but economic growth is providing more pocket money and fraying cultural traditions that considered a woman with a cigarette unattractive and immoral.
The World Health Organization says tobacco consumption in Asia increased 15 percent between 1988 and 1992. The tobacco industry has predicted that sales in Asia will increase 33 percent between 1991 and 2000.
Smoking is increasing among all ages of students in South Korea, says Judith Mackay, director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control. And in Taiwan, the number of 15- to 17-year-olds who experimented with smoking increased from 3 percent in 1985 to 20 percent in 1991.
To make cigarettes less affordable for youths, the Hong Kong government has proposed banning the sale of individual cigarettes. In Seoul, a new law says all new cigarette vending machines can be installed only in places off-limits to minors, such as bars.
In Jakarta, Manila, and other cities, keeping cigarettes away from youths is doubly difficult because huge numbers of cigarettes are peddled by street children.
In China, where the huge bulk of Asia's smokers live, recent laws restricting advertising are not well enforced and there are no laws against smoking by minors.