WHEN white male smokers began snuffing out their cigarettes for keeps, the tobacco industry shifted its $3.3 billion advertising campaign to blacks and women. The concerted response from health experts and public officials was fast and furious. Just this month Surgeon General Antonia Novello, attributing 4,000 infant deaths a year to smoking by pregnant women, protested indignantly: ``It is time that the self-serving, death-dealing tobacco industry and their soldiers of fortune, advertising agencies, stop blowing smoke in the face of America's women and children.''
But when the subject turns to exporting American cigarettes, the administration falls curiously silent. Referring to aggressive efforts by the US trade representative to break down Thailand's ban on imported cigarettes, Surgeon General Novello remarked: ``For me to talk about it would be almost disrespectful of my party.''
A double standard has emerged as the tobacco industry, confronted by a declining market and hostile public opinion at home, attempts to make up the difference in sales abroad. Tobacco exports have risen from $1.8 billion to $3.5 billion in the past five years. Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco have just signed an agreement to supply the Soviet Union with 34 billion cigarettes.
But the primary target remains Asia. Washington even threatened retaliatory tariffs if American cigarettes are not allowed to enter Thailand. American cigarettes are now being pushed upon the world's underclass - those who can least afford them and who are least aware of the health risks. In this respect, cigarettes resemble other forms of hazardous waste, dumped by developed countries on emerging nations.
There are better ways to reduce the US trade deficit than by seeking out ever-poorer consumers for a product that kills over 2.5 million people annually, according to medical estimates.
Representatives participating in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) talks in Geneva supported Thailand's ban on tobacco advertising, recognizing that considerations of health should exercise a restraining influence on commerce.
This is something, if not everything. So is the willingness of the United States to abide by the GATT recommendation - for now. But the administration still needs to take to heart the warning of Rep. Chester Atkins (D) of Massachusetts that the US, as ``a leader in world health,'' will stand convicted of a cruel cynicism if its trade policies continue ``to promote disease and death around this world merely for the sake of economic profits for a few major US companies.''