Blowing Smoke

THIS time when an incredulous America gets hit, full force, with third-world resentment, no one can say we weren't forewarned. In one of his final congressional appearance before stepping down, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said that the ``ugly American will become current in a decade or two when the developing countries of today realize what we did to them.''

So what's going on here?

This past June, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, which represents the president in international trade matters, announced that it had begun an investigation of Thailand's trade policies and practices regarding the distribution, sale, advertising, and promotion of cigarettes. Not surprisingly, the investigation came at the request of the US Cigarette Export Association, which represents the big three US tobacco companies - Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and Brown & Williamson.

The US tobacco companies are screaming ``unfair trade practices'' as they seek to force their way into the Thai market and open the floodgates for even greater and more lucrative sales. But the industry already exports well over 120 billion cigarettes per year. So why is it so intent on muscling in on new territory?

The logic is simple, but pernicious. More than 390,000 Americans die each year from tobacco use; the industry is losing another 1.5 million smokers annually - adults who struggle to kick their addiction to nicotine, an addiction that the Surgeon General says is more powerful than that of cocaine or heroin. The industry is also faced with increasing opposition to tobacco use here in the US, as evidenced by the recent Senate action to ban smoking on all domestic flights. That leaves cigarette companies desperate for new smokers and new markets.

Once they've crashed the gates of restraint, the cigarette manufacturers relish the opportunity to impose their advertising and promotional wizardry on Asian markets. Their new target audience: women and children. More advertising means big-potential profits. The tobacco industry's own modest estimates predict an 18 percent increase in the Asian market by the year 2000.

But where there is a potential for profit, there is also an advertising precedent that should make us squeamish.

Take the case of Taiwan, where overall cigarette consumption has increased 4 percent in the two years since our government insisted that US tobacco products be allowed into that country. R.J. Reynolds, for one, wasted no time promoting a rock 'n' roll concert by offering admission in exchange for five packs of Winston cigarettes. In Japan, that country's tobacco monopoly, forced to compete with overt advertising to adolescents by US tobacco companies, has escalated the cigarette marketing war by introducing Misty cigarettes, whose ads promise to transform Japanese girls into romantic incarnations of Southern California princesses, and Dean cigarettes, modeled on the late actor James Dean, a folk hero with young Japanese boys.

Meanwhile, cigarette advertising is illegal in Thailand, yet the Thai people are currently subjected to US tobacco promotional gimmicks such as Marlboro school notebooks and Winston kites. These marketing ploys persist despite the US cigarette industry's own code of ethics, which clearly states that they will not ``advertise or promote cigarettes to young people.''

Tobacco companies claim that they advertise to promote ``brand switching,'' not to hook new smokers. We know differently. In the US, 80 percent of all new smokers are under the age of 19; 50 percent are 13 or younger. These statistics have the potential to be even more threatening for developing countries. A recent Taiwanese survey reported a surge in adolescent smoking - estimated now to be 33 percent, a rate higher than adult male smokers in the US. THE US tobacco industry's style of advertising and promotion could have a disastrous impact on the health of the Thai people, who are less informed than their American counterparts of the dangers of cigarette smoking. Thailand's public health movement has made great strides in the past decade. For example, Thai medical students have sponsored anti-smoking marathon runs and smoking is currently banned on domestic airline flights - but Thailand is many years and millions of dollars in resources behind the US in health education.

Moreover, if the Thai government were forced to relent to US trade pressure, tobacco companies would not be inhibited by the advertising restrictions, the Surgeon General warning labels, or the strong opposition from public health organizations that they face at home. Like other developing countries before it, Thailand is ripe for the tobacco industry's picking. Cigarette exports and advertising have already dramatically altered tobacco marketing in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Witness Japan, where cigarette advertising is now second in total television advertising time from 40th just two years ago.

To force the exportation of cigarette sales and companion advertising into Thailand is inconsistent with US health policies and programs. Dr. Koop is correct; our message to Thailand says clearly: We don't care if we contribute to your health problem, just let us market our tobacco products on your shores - in the name of fair trade, of course.

This policy makes a mockery of our claim to be a world leader in health. We must turn our focus from tobacco exports to safer, healthier, more humane products, before our friends in the East see the Ugly American as the Deadly American.

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