RAPIDLY LOSING market share in the United States, where anti-smoking consciousness is running high, the tobacco industry has set its sights on the developing world. The marketing ploys Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, and the rest are using overseas will be familiar to Americans: sponsorships of popular concerts and sporting events; logo-emblazoned ''gear'' redeemable with proof of purchase; thinly veiled appeals to teenagers and women.
Multinational tobacco companies are engaged in unprecedented global expansion. In 1998 Philip Morris made profits overseas that were five times those in its US market. Eighty percent of the world's 1 billion smokers live in developing countries; the number of smokers in Asia is growing by 8 percent a year.
Perhaps the most offensive recent campaign has been the marketing effort to capitalize on the opening of countries in Eastern Europe to the West. In the Czech Republic, billboards and other gear, including skateboards, are emblazoned with the phrase ''LSMFT - Lucky Strike Means Free Thinking.'' Smoking American-brand cigarettes is promoted as joining the best of America - prosperity, youth, opportunity, independence. Of course, nothing could be more un-liberating than becoming enslaved to nicotine addiction. The new ''LSMFT'' slogan has an Orwellian ring.
In Malaysia, where direct tobacco advertising is banned, companies have gone all out with ''indirect marketing,'' sponsoring concerts and tournaments. Last year the Salem ''Cool Planet'' campaign sponsored a concert in the national stadium in Kuala Lumpur that was preceded by weeks of saturation advertising - for the Salem concert, not the cigarettes.
One way to combat the power of the tobacco behemoths is the World Health Organization's framework convention on tobacco control, which held its first meeting of member countries in Geneva late in 1999. Through a process similar to the Kyoto global warming treaty, the WHO convention is expected to develop a protocol that will cover tobacco pricing and marketing policies, smuggling, taxes, health labels, and prevention programs aimed at children.
Unfortunately, the United States has not been a leader in helping the world's poorer countries defend against big tobacco. The United States exports more cigarettes than any other country in the world, and in WHO negotiations it has resisted proposed trade restrictions, taxes, ad bans - even with First Amendment exemptions - or license requirements that might damage that trade.
According to WHO, 4 million people die from tobacco-related illness each year, and tobacco use will soon eclipse all other causes of death. The United States, which is making strides to protect the health of its own citizens, should not be so cavalier about others.
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