Stop Backing Tobacco Exports

Quest for smoke-free society shouldn't stop at the border

THE campaign against smoking in the United States has intensified recently: The state of Mississippi is suing tobacco companies to recoup smoking-related health-care costs in state programs; President Clinton wants to increase cigarette taxes; Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders urges a ban on tobacco advertising directed at teenagers; the Food and Drug Administration wishes to regulate cigarettes as a drug; and the Congress is taking a hard look at the manufacturers.

Yet we have no moral qualm in helping our tobacco companies to export their products to the third world. The United States Agriculture Department is giving grants to tobacco farmers to promote smoking overseas, and the American cigarette giants are flexing their muscles through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. While the number of smokers in the US has dropped 32 percent in the last 22 years, it has risen sharply in the developing world.

Cigarette manufacturers experience little constraint when they push smoking in the emerging nations. They use disingenuous advertising and are callous about the nicotine and tar levels. They also foster partnerships with the government-owned tobacco monopolies abroad.

Tobacco proponents give untenable reasoning for their actions: Smoking is an inexpensive recreation for the poor; and we are only competing with the other suppliers.

But if smoking is unhealthy for the affluent, it is more so for the impoverished.

Citizens of developing countries account for one-third of the $200 billion global cigarette market. Their indulgence exacerbates already taxed public-health systems and wastes meager resources. More and more children in developing nations are growing up as nicotine addicts. The number of women smokers is increasing particularly fast because the companies portray smoking as a symbol of women's social freedom. At issue is the harmful effect of smoking not only on women, but on children born to women who smoke during pregnancy.

Many societies are hobbled by malnutrition and disease. We do not need to add any more to their plight.

Statistics on third-world smoking are appalling.

In Africa and South America, the rates of cigarette consumption has escalated in the past decade by 32 percent and 24 percent respectively.

These figures will be compounded because of the faster rate of population growth in these continents and in Asia. Forty percent of the planet's inhabitants live in just four countries - Bangladesh, China, India, and Pakistan. Despite their political differences, they have one thing in common - a rising number of smokers.

One study has shown that consumption of even five cigarettes a day in a poor household causes financial drain, resulting in dietary deficit. And smoking is increasingly becoming the habit of the lower economic classes. THESE distressing facts, however, do not deter the tobacco promoters. ``There is a significant smoking population in the world, and there is a growing demand for a high-quality American blend cigarette. We want them to contain as much American tobacco as possible,'' said Kirk Wayne, president of Tobacco Associates.

Tobacco is the most widely used addictive substance on earth. Americans cannot simply remain bystanders. We have an obligation to stop the push for smoking and warn the countries of the human costs of cigarettes. Health warnings on the cigarette packages are useless because of the high illiteracy rate around the globe.

Meanwhile, Americans must press US government leaders to take an equally firm stand against exporting tobacco products. America should not create one smoke-free society at the expense of others. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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