IN Nairobi, the Safari Rally - an endurance car race - is now the Marlboro Rally. The manufacturer of Marlboro, Philip Morris, gets visibility and a flashy image in a fast-growing market. Philip Morris is also one of the first United States investors in East Germany. Last week the company said it is buying a factory to produce 6.5 billion cigarettes a year.
And, the US tobacco companies have petitioned US Trade Representative Carla Hills to impose sanctions on Thailand unless the Asian country opens its markets to US brands.
Indeed, the overseas sales of cigarettes - always significant to the leading US and British companies - have become even more important as the market shrinks in the US.
The tobacco companies' heightened interest is also attracting the attention of public-health groups and Congress.
On Monday, C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general, told 9,800 people attending the World Conference on Lung Health that US tobacco exports rose 20 percent last year. ``In 1989 American companies made 600 billion cigarettes; 100 billion of those cigarettes went overseas, over half to the far east,'' Mr. Koop said.
Indeed, during a day-long program, public-health experts from around the world predicted a global epidemic from smoking-related deaths as a result of this surge in overseas sales. Judith Mackay, a doctor and director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control in Hong Kong, predicted 12 million people will die annually from smoking by the year 2050. Medical experts estimate about 2.5 million people currently die from smoking-related illnesses.
Because of the huge growth of cigarettes sales abroad, the US Congress has started to focus on the issue. Two weeks ago, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts held hearings on the export of US cigarettes.
On May 17, the subcommittee on Health and the Environment, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, examined why the US trade representative was pressing Thailand to open its markets. ``We are insisting only on national treatment - that is, that other nations treat our products the same as they treat their own,'' said Sandra Kristoff, assistant US trade representative for Asia and the Pacific.
W. Andrew Copenhaver, general counsel of the United States Cigarette Export Association, says more than 60 percent of adult Thai males already smoke. He says the US would simply be competing for a share of those smokers - not advertising for new smokers. In addition, Thailand is a significant exporter of tobacco leaf and cigarettes - competing against US companies in the Asian market. Thailand exported 40 billion cigarettes last year.
However, Mrs. Mackay says US companies are targeting a new consumer: Thai women, only 5 percent of whom smoke.
At his hearing last week, Congressman Waxman was surprised when the administration withdrew as a witness John Mason, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services. On Sunday, Louis Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services, said the export of tobacco is a trade issue not a health issue. ``Secretary Sullivan is just wrong,'' said Senator Kennedy after addressing the Boston conference. Mr. Koop was even stronger. ``I am appalled at our own government's support of such behavior - it is the export of death and disease,'' Koop said. When he was surgeon general, Koop testified before Congress against trying to force countries to accept US cigarettes.
``It is the height of hypocrisy for the United States, in our war against drugs, to demand that foreign nations take steps to stop the export of cocaine to our country while at the same time we export nicotine, a drug just as addictive as cocaine to the rest of the world,'' Koop said.