FOR many East Europeans, the right to smoke is more important than the right to vote. The recent rioting in the Soviet Union to protest the shortage of cigarettes was deadly serious. And United States tobacco companies are now poised to take advantage of the situation. Throughout the region, there is virtually no social stigma attached to cigarette smoking. From Berlin to Bucharest, from Warsaw to Moscow, millions of people, some of the heaviest smokers outside of Asia, flaunt their tobacco habits from trains to elevators without attracting a whiff of protest. ``No smoking'' sections in restaurants are unheard of, and rare is the office or taxi with a ``please don't smoke'' sign. ``No smoking'' notices in public places are largely ignored.
There are ``no smoking'' signs around Red Square. But, according to students at nearby Moscow State University, the only time police try to enforce the ban is during the changing of the guard at Lenin's tomb. Even then, onlookers in the crowd puff away undisturbed, only a few yards from the ceremony and the police.
Although East Europeans are increasingly aware of the horribly polluted environment in which they live, few think of smoking as a contributing factor. Information cited in an Economist magazine report on environmental problems in the region indicates cigarette smoking is ``probably'' a more important factor than pollution in contributing to the past decade's decline in life expectancy in all East European countries except East Germany. Yet there are no clear signs that health warnings are taken seriously.
The right to smoke is political. A woman in Budapest remembered, ``it was just one more area in which the government was acting as Big Brother, trying to control our lives. The health facts were irrelevant. People didn't change their smoking habits as an act of mild defiance.''
People also didn't change, according to Birgit Klesper, a Philip Morris representative in Berlin, because they really like to smoke. ``Passive smoking [breathing other people's smoke] is not yet a subject here,'' she says.
Governments in the region have not been ``aggressive in explaining health hazards and drawing the connection between smoking and life expectancy,'' she says, adding ``We don't have any Koops here,'' referring to the former US Surgeon General.
The head of the Polish Anti-Smoking Society, Witold Zatonski, who is a Warsaw cancer epidemiologist, told a reporter, ``Poles aren't very conscious of the smoking problem. Somehow, the country hasn't been willing to learn from the mistakes of other countries.'' Dr. Zatonski uses imported English language antismoking literature to spearhead his campaign.
Lech Walesa may not yet be the new Marlboro man, but by using the chain-smoking Polish Solidarity leader as a paid pitchman for its crafty right-to-smoke campaign, Philip Morris co-opted a significant symbol in its program to dominate the East European market.
Walesa photos, complete with cigarette or pipe in hand, are frequently found throughout the region. The controversial print advertisements used the Nobel prize-winner's words supporting freedom and the US Bill of Rights followed by the Philip Morris logo. But they strike a responsive chord among people who are tired of their governments telling them how to lead their private lives and regard cigarette smoking as one of life's pleasures.
To reinforce its soft-sell connection with freedom and democracy, Philip Morris underwrote the costs of virtually the entire election-night operation at the cavernous Palace of the Republic in East Berlin for the May elections in East Germany. From the political analysis desks to the phone banks, from the high-tech election-returns displays to the food and drink of the press lounge, from the tone of its negotiations with the East German government to the distribution of free samples of Philip Morris products, the tobacco company was carefully promoting its message. According to Ms. Klesper, this was the first time a tobacco company had underwritten election coverage in the former Soviet bloc country, and the event was ``not inexpensive.'' But she added, ``this is the beginning.''
WITH new governments struggling with the transformation of their economies, concern with smoking is seen as a rather trivial diversion. The dangers of passive smoke pale in contrast to the risks of breathing soft coal emissions. Even for nonsmokers, according to residents, just living in Prague is like having a two-pack-a-day habit. And smokers and nonsmokers alike in Budapest claim that their city may be unhealthier than Prague.
Data compiled by the tobacco industry, which indicate that smoking consumption in the region marginally declined during the 1980s, are misleading. The statistics do not include the burgeoning market in black-market cigarettes from the West, which if counted could show an overall increase, according to an industry analyst.
In fact, the problem may be getting worse. While the percentage of smokers in Poland, for example, is not much greater than in the US, smoking among young Poles is dramatically higher. In Poland, 81 percent of men and 57 percent of women in their early 30s smoke, according to the Polish Ministry of Health. And the rates for older teenagers are almost as high.
Young people are a special target in Germany. R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris have promoted brand image by sponsoring adventure teams and contests. And Camel, according to a report in the Tobacco Reporter, an industry publication, has been ``so successful among younger smokers'' that it distributes ashtrays, signage, and cafe umbrellas to young people in restaurants and discos. According to Dr. Sylvia Merk, manager of public affairs for R.J. Reynolds Gmbh in Germany, ``As the leaders of our target groups smoke our products while they socialize in these meeting places, then others naturally will want to buy the leaders' brands.''
For years, US cigarettes, far more expensive than local brands, have been a shadow currency. In Romania, for example, tailors price handmade suits in terms of cartons of Kent cigarettes.
Information regarding cigarette protocol is a basic part of cross-cultural briefings for visiting foreign service officers, businessmen, and journalists. Travelers who haven't smoked in years and are morally opposed to encouraging the habit wrestle with their consciences and then stock up on desired brands, resigned to the reality that without the cigarettes their ability to get things done will be seriously circumscribed.
People in Moscow describe taxi distances in terms of one- and two-pack rides. Many Moscow cab drivers would rather not pick up a ride than accept the low ruble rate on the meter. And some cabs will stop only if the prospective fare waves packs of Marlboros. This can be lucrative for the drivers. During the recent Soviet cigarette shortage, the black market price of a pack of US cigarettes jumped as high as $25.
US cigarette manufacturers held back some activities in the region because of concerns about getting paid. Now they are proceeding with joint ventures and plans to export both tobacco leaves and finished products. Even the Soviet Union is making special arrangements to pay Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco hard currency for delivering some 34 billion cigarettes.
Eastern Europeans are used to smoking cheap aromatic oriental tobaccos that are heavy in tar and nicotine. US brands lower in tar and nicotine and lighter in taste are being pushed as a healthier alternative. People can change brands and smoke more, so it is alleged, without increasing their risks.
The market for US cigarettes in Eastern Europe ultimately depends more on image than taste. When smokers in the old Soviet bloc first try a fabled Marlboro, says an economic analyst for the Tobacco Merchants Association of America, they are surprised. ``It will taste different. They will expect a better-tasting cigarette,'' he says. But, he adds, lack of taste will not stop them, because Western cigarettes generally are ``status symbols. Like rock-and-roll and jeans, they convey the right image of America and Western enterprise.''