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COLUMN ONE : Targeting Foreign Smokers : As sales lag at home, U.S. tobacco firms try to conquer Asia and East Europe. In Hong Kong, Philip Morris once bought every newspaper front page to push Marlboro.

Targeting Foreign Smokers. FIRST OF TWO PARTS

November 17, 1994|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let health groups call them drug pushers; let members of Congress hand them their heads. U.S. cigarette makers are riding high, now that the world is Marlboro Country.

Americans keep smoking less, but tobacco companies are finding more than enough foreigners to take their places. From the smoke-filled cafes of Eastern Europe to the billboard jungles of Asia, the firms are out there pitching--often using TV and other strategies they cannot use at home:

* In China, the world's biggest tobacco market, Philip Morris has become the financial angel of professional soccer, underwriting the Marlboro Soccer League, named for the company's flagship brand.

* In Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, R.J. Reynolds has marched couples down the aisle in "Camel" weddings, complete with Camel-insignia taxis to shuttle the guests.

* In the Philippines, Asia's most Roman Catholic nation, promotional calendars display U.S. and local cigarette brands under a picture of the Virgin Mary.

* In chain-smoking Eastern Europe, the U.S. companies are becoming a huge force in cigarette manufacturing, with Philip Morris and Reynolds between them having entered into 14 joint ventures with state tobacco companies.

Here at home, tobacco companies are circling the wagons, fighting to save what they can of a shrinking market. But the industry's big three--Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds and Brown & Williamson--are seizing new turf in the developing world, where smoking is on the rise and American cigarettes still symbolize elegance and style.

With billions of dollars at stake, tobacco firms have turned to political heavyweights for help in penetrating foreign markets. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is an adviser to Philip Morris--although neither she nor the firm will discuss her work or consulting fee, a reported $1 million.

The overseas push began years ago, as rising health concerns caused U.S. sales to fall. But recent events in Eastern Europe and Asia have quickened the pace.

In the newly independent states of the former Soviet Bloc, the collapse of communism has opened the floodgates to investment by tobacco firms. Eastern Europe has the world's highest rates of smoking-related deaths, but it is also starved for capital. U.S.- and Europe-based tobacco multinationals have committed more than $1.5 billion to build or retool cigarette plants throughout the region--often in joint ventures with state tobacco monopolies that once had the business to themselves.

Across economically booming Asia--the only region where cigarette consumption, per capita, is clearly growing--the U.S. government has smashed trade barriers that kept out U.S. smokes. From 1986 to 1990, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Thailand each caved in to threats of trade sanctions, allowing American cigarettes to compete with monopoly brands.

The full-court press is paying big dividends. Although U.S. consumption has fallen in each of the last 10 years--and by 20% over the decade--cigarette exports have more than tripled and sales from U.S. tobacco plants abroad have surged.

Philip Morris alone sold 460 billion cigarettes abroad in 1993--nearly as many as Americans bought from the company and all its rivals combined.

"Our worldwide tobacco business has never been in better shape," the firm recently told shareholders. "As large as we have grown, however, our brands only account for approximately 12% of the worldwide cigarette market--leaving plenty of room for profitable growth."

Cigarette exports have also been one of the few bright spots in the U.S. trade picture, shaving the trade deficit by $23.5 billion over the last five years.

Not that the cigarette makers are turning their backs on America. Profit margins remain higher in the United States than abroad. Indeed, the companies will keep fighting smoking restrictions here--as Philip Morris did in its failed campaign on behalf of California's Proposition 188--to preserve domestic sales and because other countries tend to copy U.S. smoking curbs.

But as time passes and the industry extends its global reach, its problems at home seem to matter less and less.

"For every smoker who quits in the U.S., two teen-agers start smoking in China," said Dr. Judith Mackay, a Hong Kong-based physician and consultant who has advised Asian countries on tobacco control.

Twenty years ago, the wealthy, industrialized West led the world in smoking, according to tobacco consumption data compiled by the World Health Organization. Today, the situation essentially is reversed, with three poorer nations--Poland, Greece and Hungary--atop the list.

The trend has raised deep concern among health authorities who fear that poor nations, struggling to eliminate malnutrition and lift standards of public health, face a looming, American-style epidemic of lung cancer. One particular concern is that aggressive advertising will boost smoking among women, who now smoke in low numbers in many of the countries receiving the cigarette makers' attention.

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