West sets spark to Russian smoking Foreign firms market tobacco where use is high, restrictions low

October 19, 1997|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Sleek and glistening, it soars above Manhattan like a powerful guided missile, heading straight for the heart of the patriotic Russian consumer.

The missile is a pack of cigarettes, and it is emblazoned on billboards and light poles all over Moscow, along with a Cold War slogan resonating with nationalistic feeling.

"Strike Back," it says.

The message is clear. Buy these cigarettes, called Yava Gold, and you'll be buying Russian, striking back at the Western companies that are assaulting this nation with their products, particularly their cigarettes.

There's one thing the ads don't mention. Yava Golds, like about 45 percent of cigarettes sold here, are made by Western-controlled companies, in this case the British American Tobacco Co.

Operating under tighter and tighter restrictions in the West, their profits threatened by high-cost lawsuits in America, Western tobacco companies are waging a hard-fought campaign to sell their cigarettes here.

"Our market is huge," says Vassily N. Terevtsov, chairman of Tobakprom, the tobacco lobbying association here.

"Russians smoke 250 billion cigarettes a year," he says, a cloud of Yava Gold smoke issuing from his cigarette.

About 60 percent of all Russian men smoke every day, according to polls. About 150 billion cigarettes are produced here, and 100 billion are imported every year.

A few years ago, a cigarette only had to look American to sell. At the end of the 1980s, Marlboros symbolized the West and freedom.

A foreigner had only to stand on the side of a street, hold up a pack of Marlboros and a taxi would appear out of nowhere, screech to a halt and take him wherever he wanted to go.

Today, many Russian adults are recoiling from things Western. For many, freedom has come to mean only poverty and crime.

So it was no wonder that Peter the Great cigarettes were a big hit when they appeared last year. The cigarettes are clad in elegant black, the packages emblazoned with the national -- and czarist -- double-headed eagle, in gold.

"Great Russia," trumpets the front of the pack. An inscription on the back says the cigarettes are designed for those who "believe in the revival of the traditions and grandeur of the Russian lands."

They're made by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. at its St. Petersburg plant.

"They're moving fast," says Dr. Ronald Davis, editor of the journal Tobacco Control. "The more governments clamp down in the West, the more aggressively they're marketing their products in Eastern Europe."

Davis and other anti-smoking activists have been lobbying the U.S. Congress to allocate money from the proposed $368 billion national settlement of tobacco litigation to campaign against smoking in Eastern Europe, Asia and other foreign targets of U.S. companies.

They say the tobacco companies will advertise ruthlessly to recruit young smokers in countries where legal restraints are not in place, using whatever imagery will sell. And they think America has an obligation to clamp down on the exportation of smoking.

The tobacco companies argue that they don't export smoking, only cigarettes.

"It's cynical, but it's the cornerstone to their survival," said John Brier, an anti-smoking activist from Scarborough, Maine. "People don't start smoking after the age of 20 -- only 1 percent do. The only way is to get the young kids hooked. They have to get cigarettes in the hands of young people before they're old enough and smart enough to make an informed decision. It will offset their losses in the U.S."

Young people here, unlike many of their elders, are still wooed by the American siren song. Brier, a marketing consultant, spent a month last summer in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

"I quickly found that it was no longer Communist country, but Marlboro country," Brier said by telephone from Maine. "The Marlboro man died of cancer here, but he's alive and well there."

Brier, who has an M.B.A. with a concentration in health care administration, says Philip Morris had put the Marlboro man everywhere -- looming over the city on the sides of 10-story buildings, peering out from ashtrays in bars and beckoning to young people at a disco tent set up in a park.

"In order to get in, you had to produce five packs of Marlboros, three if you were a student. You showed your packs at the gate. You couldn't say, 'I don't smoke. Can I pay to get in?'

"You had to have the cigarettes," Brier said. "They advertised it consistently for a month. It was on the radio. There were fliers on light poles. Every night there were hundreds of people, sometimes a thousand on weekends."

In a city of 2 million, with little to do, the disco tent with its bright lights and state-of-the art sound system was irresistible to the young, he said.

Andrew White, a spokesman in Moscow for Philip Morris, said promotions such as those in Novosibirsk are aimed at smokers over age 18. The disco hostesses were trained to check identification of anyone who could have been younger, he said.

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