COURTROOM ``A'' at the International Trade Commission was full this week of Americans fighting tooth and nail against export of United States products to a foreign country. If that sounds bizarre during this era of strenuous efforts to pry open markets abroad, consider that the products in question are US-made cigarettes destined for Thailand.
``Our trade policy cannot be divorced from the health of the Thai people,'' said Raymond Scalettar of the American Medical Association during testimony at a US trade representative's hearing Tuesday.
The hearings concerned US trade policy, and specifically the use of US trade sanctions to open US cigarette exports to Thailand, the new battle front for antismoking forces. Thailand is also seen as the first test of the Bush administration on the question of using trade sanctions to bolster cigarette export.
The US Cigarette Export Association (representing R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson) filed an April 10 complaint with the US trade representative's (USTR) office concerning the Thai government's denial of fair access to its markets.
Trade proponents would rather discuss the merits of competitive and fair access to a legal market. Rep. Stephen L. Neal (D) of North Carolina says his constituents have much at stake. Between tobacco farmers, warehouse and factory workers, R.J. Reynolds and American Tobacco Company together employ roughly 14,000 people in Mr. Neal's district. Without outlets for tobacco products, his spokesman said, these jobs will be threatened.
The antismoking coalition charges the US government is sending mixed signals by pouring money into medical research for the prevention of cancer and heart and lung diseases while maintaining support for tobacco growers and cigarette manufacturers.
``It is unfair to force a deadly substance on an unwilling nation,'' while the US is moving more toward rejection of cigarettes, Scalettar says. The debate has also spurred an odd alliance between the Thai tobacco lobby and US health advocates.
Thai officials are concerned mainly about protecting their own cigarette monopoly with a retail market value of $744 million. US health experts are concerned about protecting the world's population from an increase in cigarette smoking.
US trade officials want to treat cigarettes like any other product and cigarette companies are fighting for the right to advertise their products once they gain access to the Thai market.
``Advertising works toward shifting the market share,'' said Dr. Richard Mizerski of Florida State University. It ``has a negligible effect'' on the increase of cigarette sales.
Cigarette opponents say the US manufacturers have increased the numbers of teenagers and women smokers, often with some questionable inducements. In Taiwan, for example, R.J. Reynolds planned a teen rock concert with a fixed admission charge of five empty packs of Winston cigarettes.
A State Department official acknowledges that advertising efforts by cigarette companies, such as the ``empty box'' inducements, were a ``poor idea'' and that actions like this shed unfavorable light on the committee's review of the petition.
Owen Smith, president of the US Cigarette Export Association says the debate over Thailand will be a drawn out process.
``The Thai cigarette monopoly is particularly adept at resisting market liberalization, and it will continue to do so.''
Mr. Smith expects a settlement in the coming months that includes a lifting of quotas.
But the battle over Thailand is not half over, says Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. There are eight months left in the investigation period, he says. He and Thai antismoking groups plan to pass a comprehensive health law to serve as a model for the Asian community.
Connolly stresses that with enough public pressure, the Bush administration will be publicly shamed into removing tobacco products from 301 legislation. ``It's particularly critical,'' he says, to see if ``the gentler, kinder administration means business.''