Millions of Lives Going Up in Smoke
IT IS one of the best-selling consumer products in the world. It commands armies of loyal buyers and enjoys a rapidly expanding market. Its delighted companies boast impressive profits, political clout, and prestige. The only problem is, its best customers keep dying off!
The Economist observes: “Cigarettes are among the world’s most profitable consumer products. They are also the only (legal) ones which, used as intended, turn most of their users into addicts and often kill them.” This means big profits for the tobacco companies but huge losses for their customers. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some five million years of life are sliced off the lives of American smokers each year, roughly a minute for each minute spent smoking. “Smoking kills 420,000 Americans a year,” reports Newsweek magazine. “That’s 50 times as many as illegal drugs.”
Around the world, three million people a year—six every minute—die from smoking, according to the book Mortality From Smoking in Developed Countries 1950-2000, published by Britain’s Imperial Cancer Research Fund, WHO (World Health Organization), and the American Cancer Society. This analysis of world smoking trends, the most comprehensive to date, covers 45 countries. “In most countries,” warns Richard Peto of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, “the worst is yet to come. If current smoking patterns persist, then by the time the young smokers of today reach middle or old age, there will be about 10 million deaths a year from tobacco—one death every three seconds.”
“Smoking is like no other hazard,” says Dr. Alan Lopez of WHO. “It will kill one in two smokers eventually.” Martin Vessey of the Department of Public Health at Oxford University says similarly: “These findings over 40 years lead to the horrible conclusion that one-half of all smokers will eventually be killed by their habit—a truly terrifying thought.” Since the 1950’s, 60 million people have died from smoking.
It is also a truly terrifying thought to the tobacco companies. If three million people each year around the world are now dying from smoking-related causes, and many others quit smoking, then more than three million new users must be found annually.
One source has emerged because of what tobacco companies hail as the liberation of women. Smoking by women has been an accomplished fact for some years in Western lands and is now moving into places where it used to be viewed as a stigma. Tobacco companies intend to change all of that. They want to help women celebrate their newfound affluence and liberation. Special cigarette brands claiming lower tar and nicotine contents lure women who smoke and who find such smoke less harsh. Other cigarettes are perfumed or have a long, slender design—the look that women may hope to achieve by smoking. Tobacco advertisements in Asia feature young, chic Asian models dressed seductively in Western elegance.
Smoking-related death rates, however, are keeping pace with the “liberation” of women. The number of lung cancer victims among women has doubled in the last 20 years in Britain, Japan, Norway, Poland, and Sweden. In the United States and Canada, rates have increased 300 percent. “You’ve come a long way, baby!” proclaims one cigarette advertisement.
Some tobacco concerns have their own strategy. One Philippine company in that predominantly Catholic country distributed free calendars bearing a portrait of the Virgin Mary and their cigarette brand logos placed brazenly below the icon. “I had never seen anything like it before,” said Dr. Rosmarie Erben, Asian health adviser for WHO. “They were trying to link the icon motif to tobacco, to make Philippine women comfortable with the idea of smoking.”
In China an estimated 61 percent of the adult men smoke, whereas only 7 percent of the women do. Western tobacco companies have their eyes on the “liberation” of these lovely Oriental ladies, millions of whom were so long denied the “pleasures” of their glamorous Western sisters. One large fly in the ointment, though: The government-owned tobacco company supplies most of the smokes.
Western companies, however, are gradually prying open the door. With limited advertising opportunities, some cigarette companies look to groom their future customers in a stealthy way. China imports movies from Hong Kong, and in many of them, the actors are paid to smoke—a soft sell!
With hostility growing on the home front, the prosperous American tobacco companies are extending their tentacles to embrace new victims. The facts show that they have taken deadly aim at the developing nations.
Health officials worldwide sound the warning. The headlines declare: “Africa Battles a New Plague—Cigarette Smoking.” “Smoke Turns to Fire in Asia as the Cigarette Market Soars.” “Asian Smoking Rates Will Lead to Cancer Epidemic.” “The New Third World Fight Is Over Tobacco.”
The continent of Africa has been battered by drought, civil war, and the AIDS epidemic. Yet, says Dr. Keith Ball, British cardiologist, “Short of nuclear war or famine, cigarette smoking is the greatest single threat to the future health of Africa.”
Multinational giants hire local farmers to grow tobacco. The farmers cut down trees sorely needed for cooking, heating, and housing and use them as fuel to cure tobacco. They grow lucrative tobacco crops instead of less profitable food crops. Impoverished Africans commonly spend a large proportion of their scanty income on cigarettes. So African families wither from malnutrition while the coffers of Western tobacco companies grow fat from the profits.
Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America are all targeted by Western tobacco companies, who see the developing world as one gigantic business opportunity. But teeming Asia is by far the biggest gold mine of them all. China alone presently has more smokers than the entire population of the United States—300 million. They smoke a staggering 1.6 trillion cigarettes a year, one third of the total consumed in the world!
“Physicians say the health implications of the tobacco boom in Asia are nothing less than terrifying,” reports The New York Times. Richard Peto estimates that of the ten million anticipated smoking-related deaths each year in the next two or three decades, two million will be in China alone. Fifty million Chinese children alive today may die from smoking-related diseases, Peto says.
Dr. Nigel Gray summed it up this way: “The history of smoking over the past five decades in China and Eastern Europe condemns those countries to a major tobacco disease epidemic.”
“How can a product which is the cause of 400,000 premature deaths each year in the US, a product which the US Government is trying hard to help its citizens to quit, suddenly become different beyond American borders?” asked Dr. Prakit Vateesatokit of the Anti-Smoking Campaign of Thailand. “Does health become irrelevant when the same product is exported to other countries?”
The developing tobacco interests have a powerful ally in the U.S. government. Together they have fought to gain footholds abroad, particularly in Asian markets. For years American cigarettes were locked out of Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and other countries, some of whose governments had their own monopolies on tobacco products. Antismoking groups protested imports, but the U.S. administration brandished a persuasive weapon—punitive tariffs.
From 1985 on, under intense pressure from the U.S. government, many Asian countries have opened their gates, and American cigarettes have been flooding in. U.S. cigarette exports to Asia jumped by 75 percent in 1988.
Perhaps the most tragic victims of the tobacco wars are the children. A study reported in The Journal of the American Medical Association says that “children and teenagers constitute 90% of all new smokers.”
An article in U.S.News & World Report estimates the number of teen smokers in the United States at 3.1 million. Every day 3,000 new recruits start smoking—1,000,000 a year.
One cigarette advertisement features a fun-loving, pleasure-seeking cartoon camel, often with a cigarette dangling from his lips. This cigarette advertisement is charged with luring youngsters into nicotine slavery before they comprehend the health risks. Within three years of running this advertisement, the cigarette company enjoyed a 64-percent increase in sales to adolescents. A study at The Medical College of Georgia (U.S.A.) found that 91 percent of six-year-olds surveyed recognized this smoking cartoon character.
Another popular cigarette icon is the free-wheeling macho cowboy whose message is, according to one teen, “When you’re smoking, you’re unstoppable.” It is said that the biggest-selling consumer product in the world is a cigarette that corners 69 percent of the market among teen smokers and is the most advertised brand. As an added incentive, coupons come with each pack, to be redeemed for jeans, hats, and sportswear popular with youths.
Recognizing the tremendous power of advertising, antismoking groups have succeeded in having tobacco advertisements banned from television and radio in many countries. One way the savvy tobacco advertisers circumvent the system, however, is by strategically placing billboards at sports events. Therefore, a telecast game, with a vast young audience, may show their favorite player poised for action in the foreground and a towering cigarette billboard lurking in the background.
At downtown locations or in front of schools, cleverly costumed women in miniskirts or in cowboy or safari outfits hand out free cigarettes to eager or curious teens. At video arcades, discos, and rock concerts, samples are passed around freely. One company marketing plan leaked to the press showed that a particular brand in Canada targeted French-speaking males from 12 to 17 years of age.
The glaring message is that smoking brings pleasure, fitness, virility, and popularity. “Where I worked,” said one advertising consultant, “we were trying very hard to influence kids who were 14 to start to smoke.” Advertisements in Asia depict healthy, young Western athletic types romping on beaches and ball fields—while smoking, of course. “Western models and life-styles create glamorous standards to emulate,” remarked a marketing trade journal, “and Asian smokers can’t get enough.”
After spending billions of advertising dollars, the tobacco marketers have scored huge successes. A Reader’s Digest special report showed that the rise in the number of young smokers is alarming. “In the Philippines,” says the report, “22.7 percent of people under 18 now smoke. In some Latin American cities, the teen-age rate is an astonishing 50 percent. In Hong Kong, children as young as seven are smoking.”
However, even as tobacco celebrates its conquests abroad, cigarette companies are painfully aware of gathering storm clouds at home. What are tobacco’s chances of weathering the storm?
[Blurb on page 3]
Its best customers keep dying off
[Blurb on page 5]
Asia, tobacco’s newest killing fields
[Blurb on page 6]
90 percent of all new smokers—children and teenagers!
[Box on page 4]
The Deadly Recipe—What’s in a Smoke?
Up to 700 different chemical additives may be used by cigarette manufacturers, but the law allows the companies to keep their lists secret. On the lists, though, are heavy metals, pesticides, and insecticides. Some ingredients are so toxic that it is illegal to dump them in a landfill. That graceful swirl of cigarette smoke carries with it some 4,000 substances, including acetone, arsenic, butane, carbon monoxide, and cyanide. The lungs of smokers and of people nearby are exposed to at least 43 known cancer-causing agents.
[Box on page 5]
Nonsmokers at Risk
Do you live, work, or travel with heavy smokers? If so, you may be at increased risk for lung cancer and heart disease. A 1993 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) is a Group A carcinogen, the most dangerous. The massive report analyzed the results of 30 studies implicating the spiraling smoke from the end of cigarettes as well as exhaled smoke.
The EPA blames passive smoke for 3,000 lung-cancer deaths each year in the United States. The American Medical Association in June 1994 corroborated the conclusions with a study it published showing that women who never smoked but were exposed to ETS have a 30 percent greater risk of developing lung cancer than other lifetime nonsmokers.
For young children, exposure to smoke results in 150,000 to 300,000 cases of bronchitis and pneumonia annually. Smoke aggravates asthma symptoms for 200,000 to 1,000,000 children each year in the United States.
The American Heart Association estimates that as many as 40,000 deaths a year occur from heart and blood vessel diseases precipitated by ETS.
[Pictures on page 7]
A glamorous Asian model and the targets