Puff on this: Big Tobacco is about to go abroad

By John

Liggett Group Inc. President Bennet Lebow has gone from merchant of death to modern day crusader in just a few short weeks, thanks to his decision to break ranks with big tobacco companies and admit that smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema. He also admitted tobacco companies aim advertisements at 14- to 18-year-olds.
Though state attorneys general and the Food and Drug Administration have heralded the news as the first major blow in the assault that will spell tobacco’s demise, they have greatly underestimated the industry’s preparations for just such a contingency.
A defection like Liggett’s has long been an inevitability because tobacco company’s stony denials of the addictive properties of cigarettes are patently impossible to maintain in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Tobacco has been working to undermine the anti-smoking advocates in order to buy itself time to consolidate its hold on its new conquest — the foreign market, and especially the Third World, where consumers are much less familiar with the duplicitous machinations of the tobacco industry, and the deadly facts that those machinations seek to hide.
According to an unaired ABC news documentary transcribed in the May/June 1996 issue of Mother Jones magazine, the U.S. government has aided the expansion. President Reagan threatened to place enormous tariffs on the exports of any country believed to be discriminating against American tobacco interests. The potential bonanza for tobacco is in Asia, especially China, which boasts 300 million smokers.
Though the Clinton Administration has been less supportive of American tobacco’s unscrupulous overseas initiatives, the damage may already be done.
The World Health Organization estimates 500 million people alive today will die from a smoking-related disease, and 70 percent of those will be from Third World countries. Will the same people who tirelessly fight to stop Joe Camel from setting American teenagers on the road to lifetime addiction do battle against Philip Morris on behalf of the Laotian kid who is intrigued by the exotic smokes from the United States that suddenly assault his senses from huge billboards and TV advertisements?
What if those attacks harm the domestic tobacco-growing industry in America? Will members of Congress try to force big tobacco companies to include stricter warnings on cigarette packages sold in Japan — where American cigarette companies are now the second-largest television advertisers — even if some farmer in Kentucky or North Carolina is going to feel the economic repercussions? Not bloody likely.
That would be politically prohibitive, and Jesse Helms is not renowned for his compassion toward those outside his constituency. He is, on the other hand, renowned for his congressional clout. One-hundred-twenty-four members of the House, and 32 senators sent letters to the FDA in 1995 opposing regulation against the tobacco industry.
Few senators would go toe to toe with Helms and his fellow tobacco-friendly legislators — who are controlled by special interest money from Richmond, Va., like so many puppets on string — simply to save several million non-voters’ lives.
An ironic turn of events, because big tobacco companies are turning their backs on domestic farmers in favor of cheaper labor in South America, where farmers aren’t held to quotas for how much tobacco they can grow and what price they can charge for it. Even as they humanize the benefits of tobacco to the American economy, farmers are being forsaken by the very conglomerates they defend.
And yet, the Liggett admission has been trumpeted as the beginning of the end for big tobacco. Even the most sanguine admit it is largely a symbolic victory, because Liggett is practically bankrupt.
The 25 percent of annual profits the company has agreed to pay states during the next 25 years will amount to practically nothing, while R.J. Reynolds sails, unhindered, into the Brave New Third World, smoldering cigarette held before it like the civilizing light that Europeans used to justify their subjugation of the African continent two centuries ago. Only now, rather than coming strapped with modern weapons, the interlopers are led by the insidious charms of a cowboy riding a camel.
John Byrne’s column originally ran in the April 14 edition of The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin.