Editorial: Tobacco Imperialism

THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL drug cartel has succeeded in enlisting the government of its home country in the effort to push its products internationally. The country? The United States. The cartel? The tobacco industry.

 For more than half a decade, operating under the authority of Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has threatened to impose severe trade sanctions against countries which deny U.S. tobacco companies market access.

Yet even this barbarous practice has not satisfied the tobacco companies and their trade group, the Cigarette Export Association. Having gained access to the Japanese, South Korean, Taiwanese and Thai markets through USTR's efforts, the U.S. tobacco industry is now protesting other countries' anti-tobacco health measures.

Ever eager to aid the tobacco companies' lethal commerce, USTR is threatening to impose sanctions against Taiwan if it enacts a set of far-reaching tobacco control proposals. Similar blackmail may be in store for China, which recently adopted strong tobacco control measures.

 Taiwan's proposed "Law Governing the Prevention and Control of Damage from Tobacco Use" contains many of the key provisions health activists advocate to lower smoking rates. It would ban cigarette sales through vending machines, restrict smoking in public places, prohibit all direct advertising and promotion of cigarettes, require disclosure of cigarettes' tar and nicotine content and put into place an aggressive public education campaign on the health effects of tobacco use. Though all aspects of the law would apply equally to foreign and domestic producers, U.S. companies claim the law would discriminate against them.

Noting that the Taiwanese tobacco industry controls about 85 percent of the market, U.S. cigarette manufacturers argue that the advertising and promotion ban is actually a disguised trade barrier that would unfairly prevent them from increasing their market share.

Armed with data supplied by the industry, USTR has adopted the companies' fallacious arguments. USTR has failed to consult the strongly anti-smoking U.S. Health and Human Services Department and it has ignored the protests of non-governmental health advocates in the United States and throughout the world. Few government actions could be more despicable than USTR's attempt to stop Taiwan from implementing health measures and preventing needless deaths.

It is not surprising that USTR is pursuing its present course of action. Seeking to prevent Taiwan from enacting health measures is only a notch worse than its prior, successful efforts to open foreign countries' tobacco markets to U.S. producers, even if market access issues initially appear to be straightforward trade matters.

The entrance of U.S. tobacco companies into markets previously dominated by national monopolies leads to increased tobacco consumption, with all of its horrendous health consequences. The U.S. tobacco companies transform foreign tobacco markets by introducing sophisticated advertisements and promotions, often despite advertising bans or restrictions. In Thailand, where all advertisements are banned, for example, Marlboro logos are reportedly on display at retail outlets.

 The U.S. companies' slick marketing strategies not only attract existing smokers to their brands, they also convince nonsmokers - particularly women and youth - to take up the habit. According to a Gallup poll cited in a 1990 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, after Korean import restrictions were removed in 1988, smoking rates among male Korean teenagers rose from 18.4 percent in 1988 to 29.8 percent in 1989. Over the same period, the rate among female teenagers rose from 1.6 percent to 8.7 percent.

 An added health hazard is that national tobacco monopolies, usually sleepy companies, become much more aggressive marketers in the face of foreign competition. For example, according to the GAO, since the Korean market was opened, the Korean monopoly has developed and marketed brands, known as Lilac, Jade and Rose, intended for women.

 USTR and the tobacco companies on whose behalf it is working can - and must - be stopped. A bill introduced by Representative Chet Atkins, D-Massachusetts, would prevent USTR from pressuring foreign governments who accord U.S. tobacco companies the same treatment as national companies (known as "national treatment").

Atkins's bill deserves support, but it does not go far enough. USTR claims that it currently only asks countries - including Taiwan - for national treatment of U.S. tobacco companies. And Atkins's bill would not prevent USTR from demanding market access for U.S. tobacco corporations, despite the deadly consequences of doing so.

Citizens should demand that President Bush order USTR cease all efforts to push U.S. cigarettes on foreign countries. Combined with the efforts of U.S. and international health organizations, many of which are focusing on this issue, widespread public outrage at USTR's anti-health efforts could lead to a rescinding, or at least a significant modification, of USTR's policy.