Tobacco's Growing Global Road

Campaigns for nonsmokers' rights and against smoking have had much success in the US and in parts of Europe. But elsewhere, they still have a long way to go.

US tobacco companies aren't helping much. They generate more than $62 billion in annual revenues, and more of that is being made in foreign markets where antismoking efforts are generally weak.

Philip Morris' international sales, for instance, went up a whopping 18 percent to $39.54 billion last year. This week it said it would pay out $5.2 billion to purchase Sampoerna, the third-largest cigarette producer in Indonesia.

Why Indonesia? It's a country of 220 million people where up to 70 percent of males smoke (the cigarettes tend to be kreteks, a blend of tobacco and cloves.)

The purchase represents another example of a disturbing trend. Philip Morris and other big tobacco companies have sought to penetrate world tobacco markets since the 1980s - with either outright purchases of companies such as Sampoerna or state-owned tobacco enterprises being privatized (e.g., Russia), or through joint ventures.

The world's big tobacco companies have a physical presence in some 96 countries. And tobacco manufacturers are seriously lobbying China, whose smokers represent a third of the world's estimated 1.2 billion who light up, but whose government currently controls tobacco production.

If there's hope that antismoking efforts might gain ground against such powerful moves, it's found in the Global Tobacco Treaty, which became international law last month. But sustaining effective antismoking campaigns across the globe won't be easy, despite the treaty. Of 168 signatories, an amazing 59 countries already have ratified it - meaning those countries will take stronger antismoking steps, such as increasing the cost of cigarettes, levying taxes, and curbing cigarette advertising and marketing. The US though, hasn't ratified the treaty. It needs to, soon. A country keen on exporting democracy should be just as keen not to export the addiction and health issues surrounding tobacco use. (By the way, experts note that antismoking efforts in many US states are becoming lax.)

Still, a vibrant antismoking movement in Asia, notably in Thailand, offers some hope. And in eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa, antismoking efforts are just beginning to coalesce. But all countries will have to work assiduously to teach their citizens about the dangers of smoking, and work even harder not to let big tobacco hold sway.

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