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Killing Innocents Abroad

By Jason M. Solomon

IMAGINE if the Bolivian government subsidized coca farmers and then pressured the U.S. to allow the importation of processed cocaine. Imagine if Burma appealed to international law to get the U.S. to accept shipments of heroin?

Imagine if the U.S. government pressured Latin American and Asian governments to allow the sale of a dangerous drug in their countries?

It did, and it continues to do so.

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) spends millions on programs designed to get Americans to give up life-threatening cigarette habits, the office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) pushes to open foreign markets to American cigarettes. Both efforts are enjoying considerable success. The losers are the countries where smoking is on the rise because of the introduction of American cigarettes.

America's current victim appears to be Thailand. U.S. trade officials announced last week that a panel set up by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) determined that Thailand's ban on the importation of cigarettes violates existing free-trade agreements. This decision opens the doors for American cigarettes to enter the Thai market.

Thailand is just the latest in a series of Asian countries targeted by American cigarette companies and their agent, the office of the USTR. During the 1980s, the USTR's office successfully negotiated for the removal of cigarette import restrictions in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. (The current U.S. Trade Representative, Carla Hills, has been mentioned as a candidate for the Harvard presidency.)

The U.S. cigarette companies introduced its slick marketing techniques--developed and refined in the domestic market--to these countries, forcing the existing national monopolies to upgrade and increase their advertising as well. In terms of total air time, television advertising of cigarettes in Tokyo rose from 40th place to second place in the year following U.S. entry into the market.

Meanwhile, the South Korean tobacco monopoly is trying to keep up with the American firms by using the same advertising ploy--targeting specific sectors of the population, such as teenagers and women. Since the opening of the market, the South Korean monopoly has developed and marketed cigarette brands called "Lilac," "Jade" and "Rose," especially intended to lure women into the habit.

Largely because of the introduction of advertising, tobacco consumption in Taiwan has increased by 4 percent. The recent trend toward a decline in cigarette smoking in Japan has been halted. In Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, there are reports that young women and adolescents are taking up smoking in increasing numbers.

IT APPEARS that Thailand will follow the same pattern. Although Thailand's ban on cigarette advertising was upheld in the GATT ruling, the ban should have a minimal effect on the U.S. cigarette companies, who will find ways around the restrictions.

Already, there have been billboards advertising American cigarettes at sporting events and around Bangkok, despite the current bans on advertising and imported cigarettes. Once the import ban is lifted, U.S. firms will no doubt use large point-of-sale displays akin to small billboards.

The appeal of the American product and the glamorized American way of life as portrayed in cigarette ads should not be underestimated. Dr. Prakit Vateesatokit, a leader of the Thai anti-smoking movement, predicted that "many more Thais will take up smoking when Marlboro and the other brands begin to tell them to." In Taiwan, a local anti-smoking organization conducted a survey which showed that 80 percent of teenage smokers prefer imported cigarettes.

Targeted by the sleek ads of the U.S. cigarette, countless women and adolescents will pick up the habit. (Although tobacco companies insist that advertising is intended to persuade people who already smoke to switch brands, the companies have an obvious need to recruit new smokers--their old customers tend to die prematurely.)

A strong Thai anti-smoking and public health movement has managed to decrease the smoking rate from 30.1 percent of the population in 1976 to 26.4 percent in 1986. But leaders of the movement worry that U.S. entry into the market would increase advertising, create demand and increase consumption, further endangering public health. Public health awareness is still low in Thailand; most Thais know little about the relation between cigarettes and life-threatening disease. Dr. Vateesatokit points out that health education in Thailand is no match for the "allure of Madison Avenue."

SO WHAT is the U.S. doing peddling cigarettes throughout the world? For one thing, the political arm of the tobacco industry, the Tobacco Institute, is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Cigarette companies need exports; domestic smokers are dying off and no one is replacing them. Domestic consumption of cigarettes is down 17 percent since 1981.

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.

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