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'Exporting Death': Cigarette Firms Attack Asia as Americans Smoke Less

July 23, 1989|Charles Babington | Charles Babington is the Washington correspondent for the News and Observer and the Raleigh (N.C.) Times

WASHINGTON — A remarkable thing is happening in the U.S. cigarette industry: As America continues its 25-year decline in per capita smoking, total cigarette sales are booming.

The reason is that Asia suddenly, albeit reluctantly, dropped trade barriers to U.S. cigarettes. Pushed by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the Reagan and Bush administrations threatened costly sanctions against Asian countries that wouldn't allow the importation of billions of Merits and Marlboros.

U.S. cigarette exports rocketed to $2.6 billion last year, more than double the total three years ago. Sales have grown by more than 2,400% in Taiwan and South Korea since 1985. Japan, where nearly two-thirds of the men smoke, has replaced Belgium as the No. 1 importer.

An increasingly vocal group of public officials calls this a deal with the devil, contending that thousands of Asians will die from lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases after smoking the same products that the U.S. government has labeled hazardous. Some critics predict the aggressive U.S. export policy will one day reap worldwide resentment.

"I don't think that we as citizens can continue to tolerate exporting disease, disability and death," said outgoing Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.

This summer the U.S. effort to open Thailand's $744 million-a-year cigarette market reaches the touchiest issue of all: TV advertising. Like the United States, Thailand bans broadcast ads for cigarettes. But the U.S. trade representative recently launched an investigation of Thai import policies, spurred by a petition from major cigarette exporters that said, "In order to compete effectively in Thailand, the U.S. cigarette manufacturers need to advertise and promote their products."

Spokesmen for Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds say Thailand banned TV ads only recently, figuring that its government-controlled cigarette monopoly could fend off U.S. imports by keeping their commercials off the air.

Yet the possibility of the U.S. government pressing for cigarette ads on foreign television infuriates Congress' anti-smoking forces.

"It is hypocritical of the United States to consider a television advertising ban abroad an unfair trade practice, but to consider a ban on television advertising at home a national health priority," said a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills signed by 17 House members, including Californians Pete Stark (D-Oakland), Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae), Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) and Norman D. Shumway (R-Stockton).

The group's leader, Massachusetts Democrat Chester G. Atkins, said recently: "Thanks in large part to actions by the U.S. government, a pandemic of lung cancer in Asia is not just likely, it is inevitable."

Government and tobacco leaders dismiss those arguments as naive, saying the critics are being unfair. They contend they merely want U.S. cigarettes to be treated the same as Asian-made cigarettes in the lucrative Far East market.

"Whether American cigarettes are purchased abroad is, and should be, up to the consumer," said Donald S. Harris, a spokesman for Philip Morris International. "The role of the United States trade representative is to ensure that our products get fair treatment."

Clayton K. Yeutter, the U.S. trade representative who led the fight during the Reagan years, is President Bush's secretary of agriculture. "If countries want to put in place regulations that in some way affect consumption of tobacco products, it's their sovereign right to do so," Yeutter said. "But they cannot be discriminatory about it."

The big U.S. assault on the Asian cigarette market began in July, 1986, when Helms, representing the nation's No. 1 tobacco-producing state, wrote a tough-worded letter to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Helms then was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and was the second-ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Those two positions, plus long-standing ties to Reagan, gave him a clout the Japanese could not ignore.

Japan is a big cigarette producer and consumer, its monopolistic tobacco industry controlled by government. In 1986, high Japanese tariffs and other trade restrictions resulted in less than a 4% market share for U.S. cigarettes, even though their quality is highly regarded.

Helms' letter was a thinly veiled threat that fellow senators were losing patience. He warned the prime minister that "very damaging decisions" regarding U.S.-Japanese relations might result. "May I suggest a goal of 20%" of the Japanese cigarette market for American producers within 18 months, he wrote.

Nakasone didn't move quickly enough; two months later, Helms and 12 other senators from tobacco-growing states wrote to President Reagan, advocating retaliation. Reagan told Yeutter's office to begin sanctions that would include bans on various Japanese exports. Japan quickly lowered the cigarette barriers.

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