Killing with smoke

January 18, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

THIRTY years ago this week, the first surgeon general's report linking cigarette smoking to cancer was released in Washington. The press conference was held on a Saturday, lest the news cause a panic on Wall Street.

Ever since, the relationship between commerce, health and cigarettes has been a touchy and a two-faced one.

On the one hand, the government facilitates the sale and use of tobacco through farm programs and trade negotiations. On the other, it decries its use through scientific papers and public education.

Under current Food and Drug Administration regulations, cigarettes would not be accepted for marketing if they were introduced today.

But cigarettes have never been classified as either food or drug, which would require them to be safe and effective; they're classified as a "device of pleasure."

Tobacco has always had friends in high places.

Yet despite the best efforts of elected officials amply compensated in campaign contributions and well-connected lobbyists amply compensated in fees, the tobacco industry has not succeeded in maintaining its standing in the United States.

Where about 42 percent of all Americans smoked at the time of the surgeon general's first report, now the number is down to about 25 percent. Once Americans got wise to the health consequences of smoking, there was only one thing left for the industry to do: Kill 'em abroad.

Philip Morris has acquired a controlling interest in what was once the state-owned Czech tobacco company.

In Russia, it is building a factory in St. Petersburg and has agreed to assume a 49 percent stake and eventually the majority interest in a plant in Krasnodar, south of Moscow. In that factory, the company hopes to double cigarette production within three years.

This summer Philip Morris announced that it had reached an agreement with the China National Tobacco Corp. to produce and sell Marlboros and other brands in China.

American trade negotiations in recent years have also made it possible for American tobacco companies to compete with home-grown competitors in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

An oncologist in Tokyo said several years ago that he was constantly asked the same question: "Why are Americans trying to encourage Japanese to smoke?"

For the money, of course. The social and moral responsibilities of big business make for interesting debate.

But any such discussion comes to naught with tobacco companies, who still deny the health risks of the product and insist they are merely playing suppliers to consumers' demand.

The truth is that tobacco companies have always created new demand for cigarettes by targeted advertising and sponsorship of sports and concert events.

In China, for example, more than half of all men smoke but few women do. And if you believe disclaimers by the cigarette companies that they will not target those women, I've got a couple of Virginia Slims ads you can hang on your bulletin board.

In many of the same nations in which America provides aid or expertise to improve health care, American tobacco companies are moving in, in essence to increase mortality.

"The transnational tobacco companies exploit our countries' desperate need for immediate economic investment," public health officials from former Soviet bloc nations wrote to President Clinton.

"But in so doing they damage our health and ruin our longer-term economic well-being."

For years they've been doing the same here: create jobs, kill tTC workers. For three decades, the tobacco interests have had to hone their rationales, first here, now abroad. When you are pursuing the moral equivalent of selling asbestos handkerchiefs to foreign neighbors, you have to have a slick rap to go with it. Or not so slick.

When he was questioned by lawyers in a class action suit last year, Bennett S. Le Bow, a New York investor whose holdings include the Liggett Group, a tobacco company, said he neither knew nor cared to know whether cigarettes cause cancer. "I'm a businessman," he said.

The truth about tobacco came out 30 years ago, in a State Department auditorium in Washington D.C.

The cold war was still in full flower. Certainly no one could have imagined that the way we would find to eliminate the Russians and the Chinese would be, three decades later, to sell them cigarettes. And all in the name of progress.

Cancer and capitalism -- what a pair!

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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