The government has its own reasons for promoting cigarette exports. Cigarettes are one of the few U.S. products still considered top-notch in the world market, and the government views them as important in closing our gaping trade deficit. In 1989, cigarettes earned approximately $3.3 billion in export revenue.
The administration takes the position that cigarette exports are a trade issue, not a health issue. For this reason, HHS declined to participate in the Thai cigarette negotiations. With the Reagan and Bush administrations encouraging cigarette exports (Reagan himself initiated the cigarette negotiations with Japan), key U.S. health officials have been discouraged from speaking on the issue of whether the United States should be selling death in Asia.
Although he has been outspoken against U.S. cigarette companies about such practices as targeting minorities in advertising, Dr. Louis Sullivan, Secretary of HHS, has been noticeably silent on the issue of cigarette exports. The Assistant Secretary of HHS, Dr. James O. Mason, was prevented from testifying at a May, 1990, Congressional hearing on the health effects of American tobacco exports. And when asked to comment on the issue in a news conference last week, Surgeon General Antonia Novello said, "For me to talk about it would be almost disrespectful of my party."
In remaining silent on the issue, however, U.S. government officials are disrespectful of their country and the values for which it stands. The U.S. is widely recognized as a world leader in public health efforts; we contribute 25 percent of the World Health Organization's budget, which goes primarily for Third World public health measures. Then we turn around and jeopardize the health of the same peoples.
The invasion of American cigarettes doesn't just hurt relations between the United States and the countries so affected. The rest of the world is never too hesitant to look at the situation and make charges of "ugly Americanism," and "neo-imperialism." In testimony before a Congressional committee, Dr. Vathesatogkit said, "By exporting death, the American image will be tarnished. And as Asian countries grow more powerful, they will remember the American disregard for Asian lives."
Regardless of the public relations problems involved, it is morally unjustifiable for the United States government to support trafficking in drugs, albeit legal ones. It may be too late to stop the invasion of Thailand, but the march of the American cigarette across Asia, with the U.S. government leading the way, must be halted immediately. Cigarettes are a menace to the health of people everywhere, not just Americans.