PUSHING TOBACCO. Hong Kong bans snuff, but US firm seeks other Asian markets

Nicholas Buoniconti is a former Miami Dolphins linebacker who helped power his team to professional football's Super Bowl. He also is president of the United States Tobacco Company, which has been involved in a bitter battle with Hong Kong over banning its smokeless tobacco, or snuff. A few weeks before the ban was signed into law on Jan. 16, US Tobacco requested a meeting with United States Department of Commerce officials about the Hong Kong action. A Commerce Department official says, alluding to Mr. Buoniconti's football career, ``He tried to throw a flag on the ban.''

Though Commerce got the message that he wanted a trade penalty for Hong Kong, no such action has been taken.

It wasn't just Hong Kong that US Tobacco was concerned about; the company wanted to kill the ban before it was duplicated elsewhere in the Asian Pacific. Australia and Singapore are considering bans on smokeless tobacco, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says causes cancer. And New Zealand recently passed such a ban. There are those in the United States who would like to ban snuff here as well.

Hong Kong's position that its ban is an internal public health issue, and not a trade issue, because it covers both domestic and foreign smokeless tobacco, has been recognized by the US Departments of State, Commerce, and Health and Human Services (HHS).

In attempts to ban the ban, US Tobacco representatives had separate meetings with Commerce and HHS officials last Dec. 18. On Jan. 12, Monday of the week the Hong Kong ban became law, the company, which is the leading US producer of smokeless tobacco, again asked whether trade action could be taken against Hong Kong.

But according to Commerce officials, the company focused on Australia for much of the Jan. 12 meeting. It appears that Australia, which is considering legislation similar to the Hong Kong ban, may be the next battleground in the smokeless wars. A Commerce official says that the department's response on Jan. 12 to US Tobacco was much the same as it was at the Dec. 18 meeting. ``We explained to US Tobacco that any country, including the United States, has a right under international trading rules to take import measures for health reasons. The requisite is that, whatever you do, the ban or restriction for health reasons apply equally to domestic manufacture as well as imports.''

He pointed out that Hong Kong had done that and Australia apparently was following suit.

The Commerce official suggests that the company is as much concerned about future trends as current actions. ``They would also be concerned if a number of countries taking future actions resulted in restrictions of smokeless tobacco in the United States.''

Another Commerce official says of the Jan. 12 meeting that US Tobacco was told when it asked for help on a possible Australian ban that ``our basic position is that we would not want anything done to discriminate against an American company as such.''

Is Commerce going to help the company get its point of view across to the proper Australian officials?

``No,'' the Commerce official said. ``We're not planning letters of introduction or anything like that. We would state their general position, but I don't know if we're going to take any action with the Australian government.''

Speaking hypothetically, he said that if Commerce ``wanted to let the Australian government know our position on their legislation,'' it might be done formally through ``representations'' by the US Embassy, or informally - ``but we haven't decided to do anything like that.''

Dr. Judith MacKay, a health expert who acted as a consultant to the Hong Kong government, says she feels confident that Australia will ban smokeless tobacco ``in the next six months. I feel very hopeful Singapore will ban it in the next couple of months.''

Dr. MacKay, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Anti-Cancer Society and a WHO representative, has campaigned vigorously for the Hong Kong ban on public health grounds. She has traveled recently to Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines, and has written letters to 80 countries informing them of the ban. She says she is ``in no sense telling them they must ban it,'' but is at least saying, ``Look, this is what we've done. Be warned. It is on its way, and be prepared for it when it's coming, because it's coming soon, in terms of Asia.''

MacKay wonders whether US Tobacco will give up on Hong Kong or persist and try to bring legal action against the colony. She says the firm has threatened such action against the Republic of Ireland, the first country to ban snuff. She speaks of the ``vehement opposition'' of the tobacco industry during the 2 years it took Hong Kong to ban broadcast cigarette advertising last year. And, MacKay says, ``Whether all Asian countries can be sort of strengthened-up to resist this kind of pressure remains to be seen, because most of us are very dependent on US trade.''

A US Tobacco spokesman mentioned MacKay several times while being interviewed. He criticized her for not having ``the proper approach,'' adding: ``I think she needs to get the facts.''

The company has also criticized the US surgeon general, Dr. C.Everett Koop, for writing to MacKay in support of the Hong Kong ban and for his report on the dangers of smokeless tobacco. When the company requested its meeting with HHS officials it specifically targeted Dr. Koop.

The Tobacco Institute, the public relations arm of the cigarette industry, on Dec. 11 had asked HHS for a formal investigation into whether Dr. Koop and others had attempted to ``censor or abuse science'' on questions of cigarette smoking and health. Industry officials question what they refer to as the unresolved scientific debate on health warnings.

According to an HHS spokesman, the people representing the department at the Dec. 18 meeting with US Tobacco ``listened to the group's complaints about the department's stand on smokeless tobacco, the surgeon general's stand, and the letter the surgeon general had sent to the Hong Kong health expert. The department stands by the surgeon general's report on the health consequences of using smokeless tobacco.''

Although three government agencies have told US Tobacco they do not back its claims, the company persists. When the company asked Commerce on Jan. 12 if there was nothing that could be done to Hong Kong in terms of US trade action, Commerce officials told them to talk to the US trade representative's office. A spokesman there tells the Monitor: ``The ban is on all smokeless tobacco, foreign and domestic; therefore it does not constitute a trade barrier.''

But in the last year the US trade representative has used unfair trade practice cases against the Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Korean cigarette markets to open them up for the US tobacco industry. Judith Bello, chairman of an interagency committee on such trade cases, says: ``There has been no filing so far on a trade action against the Hong Kong ban, but that is not to say there is not a private group somewhere working on it.''

As Australia, Singapore, and perhaps other Asian countries look into following Hong Kong's ban on smokeless tobacco, MacKay suggests: ``It is a unique and probably very short historical opportunity to ban a new form of tobacco before it becomes an established market in Asia.''

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