Cigarette imperialism

The good news this week is that tobacco use among American adults has dropped to the lowerst level since the Spanish-American war. The bad news is that tobacco comanies are turning their slick marketing skills to developing third-world countries in a callous campaign to get new customers for their habit-forming products.

A United Nations agency warns that the recent decline in cigarette smoking in many of the wealthier Western nations has been accompanied by a rise in smoking that threatens to become a major new health hazard in the third world. Although UN officials declined to describe the practice as "an attempt to develop addiction," they pointed out that manufacturers are selling purported low-tar and filter cigarettes in poorer nations with four times as much tars as those sold under the same label in industrial countries. Some of those so-called low-tar cigarettes being foisted on unsuspecting third-world consumers have a higher tar level than any obtainable in the United States since 1950.

It is regrettable that tobacco companies continue to cling to the past and refuse to see the handwriting on the wall. A vigorous antismoking campaign in China, the world's biggest consumer of tobacco, has led to a decrease in the growth of tobacco use there. The UN has called for wider efforts to discourage tobacco use in poorer nations, particularly among children and teen-agers. Thirty-eight states in the US have enacted laws prohibiting smoking in public places or separating smokers from nonsmokers.

The US Agriculture Department, while continuing to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on tobacco price supports, research, export-promotion, and other subsidies, now warns tobacco growers and processors to be alert to antismoking trends expected to continue through the next decade.

It would be far better if the huge sums spent by industry and government to hook new generations on tobacco went instead into development of food and other crops more beneficial to the third world's deprived and hungering masses. Is it any wonder that the peoples of developing countries harbor doubts about the sincerity of the industrial nations' oft-proclaimed concern for their welfare?

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