Tobacco in Asia

WE are seeing in Asia a disturbing double standard on the part of the United States government. At home, the government is trying to restrict tobacco consumption among Americans. But abroad, it is using taxpayers' money to promote a formidable campaign encouraging Asians to use American cigarettes. Facing major trade imbalances with a number of Asian countries, the US is trying to open up Asian markets to US products. Well and good. But one of the key, spearheading products is American cigarettes.

So while Surgeon General C.Everett Koop is trying to dissuade Americans from smoking at home, US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter is trying to open up markets for US tobacco companies in Asia.

Critics charge that to compensate for declining sales at home, American tobacco companies are working hard to develop new markets in the third world, particularly Asia, where the consumption of cigarettes is already high.

Some antismoking groups in Asia even liken the current tobacco-pushing campaign to Britain's opium trade in the colonial era.

The tobacco companies respond that they are not trying to turn nonsmokers into smokers, but that they are only attempting to persuade existing smokers in countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan to switch from local brands to American cigarettes.

This thesis is supported by American officials. In recent trade talks in Taiwan, for example, Peter Allgeier, assistant US trade representative for East Asia and the Pacific, dismissed local governmental concerns about the advertising and promotional activities of American cigarette manufacturers. ``Let me assure you,'' he said, ``that we do not seek to encourage smoking among the youth of Taiwan. Our efforts simply are designed to permit our firms to create brand awareness among existing smokers.''

There could hardly fail to be awareness of American brand names since local governments started loosening up under US pressure. Ads for Marlboro, Winston, and Kent cigarettes are all over such cities as the Taiwanese capital of Taipei. Jut-jawed cowboys gaze out over the plains, dangling cigarettes that are supposed to bespeak ruggedness. Other ads subtly suggest that cigarette smoking and maturity go hand in hand. Others imply to young men that pretty girls are impressed by the wisp of cigarette smoke.

Asian men are already heavy smokers, but aggressive American advertising, the critics charge, may end up capturing a new Asian youth market, as well as women, who have traditionally not smoked.

American government officials are taking great satisfaction in expanding American tobacco sales in Asia. ``Just look at the increase in the sales of cigarettes to Japan and Taiwan since we've opened those markets,'' boasted Mr. Allgeier in an interview with the United States Information Agency. His boss, Mr. Yeutter, declared that an agreement earlier this year to liberalize South Korea's cigarette market could result in several hundred million dollars in new sales.

It is in Asia that most growth for American tobacco companies is taking place. American tobacco exports to Asia were up more than 75 percent last year, boosting sales by a billion dollars.

The efforts of American trade officials to correct trade imbalances are commendable. They are attacking closed markets with vigor and determination. But there is an important moral question about browbeating Asian countries to accept American tobacco products which have been ruled harmful at home, and which another branch of the United States government is trying to curb.

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