FACED with declining cigarette sales at home, American tobacco companies are vigorously promoting the use of their products abroad, particularly in Asia. Whether they should be encouraging nations to take up a habit ruled harmful, and now generally socially unacceptable in the United States, is a major moral issue.
Even more controversial is the involvement of agencies of the US government in promoting Asian sales of American cigarettes. While some agencies of government, like the Office of Surgeon General, are trying to dissuade Americans from smoking, others, like the Office of the US Trade Representative, are actively assisting the tobacco companies in acquiring a larger share of the cigarette market overseas.
Big Washington names have been recruited in the campaign to make foreign governments open up their markets and make it easier for American tobacco companies to advertise their wares.
Former White House aide Michael Deaver became a lobbyist for American tobacco interests in South Korea. Sen. Jesse Helms, representing a big tobacco-growing state, twisted the arm of the Japanese prime minister. Senator Helms suggested that American cigarettemakers swiftly be given a 20 percent share of the Japanese market. Sens. Bob Dole, Christopher Dodd, Bob Kasten, and Lowell Weicker wrote the government of Hong Kong protesting a ban on smokeless tobacco. Such a ban, they argued, would be seen in the US as an ``unfair and discriminatory restriction on foreign trade.''
Both the US government and the tobacco companies rationalized their actions by insisting they are not trying to convert nonsmokers to smoking. They are, they argue, merely trying to capture a larger share of the existing market for American brands.
The publicly stated hopes of the tobacco companies, however, make no secret of their desire for substantially increased markets.
The tobacco industry journal, World Tobacco, for instance, has talked of the ``bright future for Asia.'' Prospects for the year 2000 were ``promising,'' it said in an article dotted with such subheads as ``growth potential'' and ``more smokers.'' Its conclusion was that cigarette sales will be up 18 percent by the year 2000.
While American tobacco companies have been pushing increased sales in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, it is China with its huge population that is seen as the pot of gold (or smoke) at the end of the marketers' rainbow. There are already an estimated 350 million smokers in China, but the tobacco companies see more.
Many tobacco companies maintain Asian bases in Hong Kong, spending millions of dollars for their promotion. According to Judith Mackay, executive director of the Hong Kong Council on Smoking and Health, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, ``Large international tobacco companies are opening up the Chinese market by setting up joint ventures, sponsoring sports and arts, and advertising cigarettes.''
She says this is often illegal, because China has laws barring tobacco advertising. ``Such violations occur because China is a large country and control is difficult.'' But last year she took this up with the Chinese minister of health, Chen Minzhang, who expressed concern.
Ironically, little Hong Kong, although benefiting from the presence of the tobacco companies' offices, has made inroads into cigarette consumption among its own people. It has banned the import, manufacture, or sale of smokeless tobacco and over about eight years has succeeded in cutting back adult daily smoking some 20 percent.
Once lackadaisical about smoking, the Hong Kong government got serious, using legislation, taxes, and a major educational and publicity campaign, which has apparently paid off.