Tobacco companies aggressively recruit smokers in developing nations

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Tobacco companies such as Philip Morris International (PMI), spun off from Altria Group Inc. in 2008 to expand the company s foreign market share and evade American regulation and litigation, have assumed the role of big, bad bully on the foreign block. The companies and others like it are using expensive lobbying campaigns and lawsuits to prevent ad restrictions, larger health warnings and higher cigarette taxes from being enacted in countries like Brazil, the Philippines and Mexico. Recently, the government of Uruguay, which this week will host an international convention on enforcing a global anti-smoking treaty called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, was sued by PMI for excessive tobacco regulations.

Since tobacco companies must comply with stringent regulatory policies limiting their ability to advertise to smokers in the U.S. and the E.U., they are aggressively recruiting new customers in developing nations to recoup profits lost when smokers quit or die. Indeed, worldwide cigarette sales are increasing by 2 percent per year, but PMI vice president and spokesman Peter Nixon tells The Times he believes the company is complying with every nation s marketing laws while selling a lawful product for adult consumers.

Mr. Nixon left out two very important points, says ACSH s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan: This lawful product kills about half its customers and is addictive.

Indonesia, the fifth-largest cigarette market in the world, receives approximately $2.5 billion per year in taxes from PMI alone. It s no wonder this country also has some of the world s laxest tobacco regulation policies, such as allowing tobacco companies to festoon cigarette packages with cartoon characters and permitting TV and billboard cigarette ads.

I feel like this is déjà vu all over again, laments Dr. Whelan. PMI is going after the Third World, and they are very actively recruiting smokers there like the cigarette companies did so effectively in the U.S. during the middle of the 20th century.

I want to note that because PMI was spun out from Altria, it is essentially immune from strict tobacco regulations in the United States because the company doesn t sell cigarettes here. (Philip Morris USA remains a component of The Altria Group).

I have to say that it s ironic to see tobacco companies in the U.S. and Europe gravitate toward harm reduction products, while they continue to promote lethal cigarettes in the developing world, says Dr. Whelan.

Public health officials need to do two things here. First, they must inform people about the manifold dangers of cigarettes, and second, officials have to help people quit their highly-addictive habit.