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Market Focus : E. Europeans' Anxiety Is Going Up in Smoke : Despite the health risks, cigarette sales are booming in the region. The stress of democratization may be to blame.

October 09, 1990|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — Food prices are rising. Jobs are disappearing. City-dwellers are being slowly poisoned by polluted air and toxic water.

To bear up under the depressing burden of day-to-day living, Eastern Europeans are seeking solace in their cigarettes.

While tobacco sales are declining in Western Europe and the United States, a reverse trend has developed in the reform belt of the Continent as increasing millions salve their stress and insecurity with a smoke.

Czechoslovak health authorities report a 10% increase in cigarette sales over the past year, and Hungary has long held the dubious distinction of being one of the largest per capita cigarette consumers in the world.

Steadily rising sales and general indifference to the health risks linked with smoking have encouraged foreign tobacco companies to launch aggressive new campaigns for a larger share of the region's multibillion-dollar market.

Fledgling anti-smoking groups have also been galvanized by what they see as an alarming trend among the residents of the former Comecon trading bloc--the inhalation of fumes from nearly 600 billion cigarettes a year.

But the few voices crying for clean air fall on deaf ears in a region preoccupied with pulling itself back from the brink of economic ruin.

The people of Eastern Europe are relatively well informed about the health dangers posed by smoking, and every pack of domestic cigarettes must carry a warning label.

Yet public concern over secondhand smoke is almost nonexistent. No-smoking sections in restaurants, shops and workplaces are rare, and private clinics to help smokers quit are unheard of.

Psychologists attribute Eastern Europe's disregard of smoking dangers to a widespread and worsening sense of fatalism. Why worry about the future when there's so much wrong with today?

With a permanent haze from brown coal and leaded gasoline blanketing Eastern Europe, many people brush off smoking as scarcely more dangerous than drawing breath.

"This is the No. 1 argument of smokers these days--that the air is so dirty that they are breathing in pollution and damaging their lungs in any case," said Alena Svobodova, a doctor heading the anti-smoking drive by Prague's Institute for Health Education.

Imre Vadasz, a Hungarian bronchology specialist, protests that such a rationale is ridiculous but concedes defeat in his one-man battle against the butt.

"Even many of the medical professionals in this country smoke," the doctor lamented. "Smoking is banned only in hospitals, and even there, the restriction is often ignored."

Czechoslovaks have been exposed to anti-smoking propaganda for 20 years, yet cigarette consumption has continued unabated, Svobodova said.

"And thanks to the political events of 1989, people have stopped paying attention to this entirely," she complained. "Smoking has been rising rapidly in 1990, overall by more than 10%."

Many say they smoke to ease the pressure of their everyday lives.

"These days, your nerves are always taut. There's never enough in the shops, and you can't afford to buy what is there," said Milena Topolova, who runs a small tobacco shop on a side street in central Prague. "Who wants to give up smoking at a time like this?"

Smoking is also being abetted by the power of prominent example.

Vaclav Havel, the revered president of Czechoslovakia, puffs through interviews and state visits, a pack of Czech-made Petras always visible at his side.

Such influential role models likely contribute to what Svobodova says has been a rise in smoking among children and adolescents in recent months.

Smoking has also come to be associated with the rugged individualism that fueled anti-Communist revolutions, lending the practice an aura of renegade glamour.

"Take a look at the Marlboro Man," suggested Szilvia Gaspar, a nonsmoker who oversees cigarette manufacturing for the Hungarian Agriculture Ministry. "This strong, independent image is very powerful among Hungarians. He's the kind of man they like to identify with."

Advertising of tobacco and alcohol products is forbidden in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but the imagery travels east through satellite television, foreign magazines and commercial promotions.

Yellow cafe umbrellas hawking Camel Filters deck the outdoor terrace of Budapest's renowned Gundel's Restaurant, and giant Kent and Dunhill boxes stand in tobacco shop windows, given prominence in return for distributors' gratuities to the managers.

Marlboro cowgirls hand out free samples at Berlin's Alexanderplatz, and cigarette logos are plastered at major sporting arenas, like Budapest's Formula 1 auto-racing track.

While major Western producers have had licensing agreements in Eastern Europe for years, the foreign brands currently account for less than 10% of regional sales, primarily because they cost more.

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