Strict US legislations are forcing cigarette companies to shift business to developing countries, where they are helped by lax laws and political reluctance to deal with the menace

Published: Tuesday 31 August 1999


Well stocked up:foreign brands (Credit: amit shanker / cse)malboro , 555, Camel... cigarette shops stock them all for the increasingly brand-conscious Indian urban smoker. Foreign cigarette brands, which were available in select stores till a few years ago, are now being stored by almost every cigarette vendor. And they are no longer a "luxury" few could afford.

As us laws against the sale of tobacco products in their country get tighter, companies have now shifted focus and business to developing countries. As a consequence, along with the rise in consumption of tobacco products in developing countries the number of tobacco smoking-related deaths and diseases have also increased. I n India, around 635,000 people die from tobacco-related illnesses every year, according to the World Health Organisation ( who ) .

us -based Philip Morris, one of the world's largest cigarette making companies which sells the famous Marlboro brand, is already raking in more money abroad than in the us . "The market is more promising in developing countries, which have a large young population," says Carol Bellamy, executive director of United Nations Children's Fund.

While cigarette sales fell by 4.5 per cent in North America between 1990 and 1995, they increased by 5.6 per cent in Eastern Europe and 8 per cent in the Asia-Pacific region in the same period. According to a report by the who, the per capita consumption of tobacco products in the developing countries will be greater than that of the developed countries by the turn of the century.

Around 300 billion cigarettes, a third of the cigarettes entering the international market every year, are smuggled. "In India, over 100 million smuggled cigarettes sell every month, which amounts to Rs 300 crore," says Kurush Grant, vice-president (marketing) of the Indian Tobacco Company ( itc ). Such brands are sold at one-third of the cost of those subjected to taxes and custom duties. Besides, they need not comply to labelling requirements.

Cigarette smoking-related diseases will increase from the current 3.5 million to 10 million by the year 2025, says Ross Hammond in his book Addicted to Profit: big tobacco's expanding global reach . And most of the deaths will occur in developing countries. Judging by this trend, more than 100 million people will die of smoking-related illnesses within the next 30 years. This will exceed the toll due to aids , tuberculosis, automobile accidents, maternal mortality, homicide and suicide put together, he adds.

The 1990s saw Indian advertisers making use of sports as a means of promoting their products. The cricket team was known as the Wills team during World Cup 1996. Six months after the tournament, questionnaires were sent to 9,004 students between the age of 13 and 17 in 130 randomly selected schools in the country. About 13 per cent of them felt like smoking, 16 per cent believed that "one becomes a better cricketer when one smokes Wills". Says Pavan Kitchlue of Enterprise Nexus Communications Pvt Ltd, an advertising agency: "Advertising ethics are flouted not only in letter but in spirit."

According Taposh Roy, senior programme officer, Voluntary Health Association of India, New Delhi, multinational tobacco companies "exhibit double standards while advertising cigarettes". For instance, the Newsweek and Time editions of Asia reserve a very small section of the page for statutory warnings, while the North American edition displays bolder warnings.

Tobacco giants utilise immense power and money to gain entry into foreign markets. In 1986, they forced their way into the Japanese markets by taking advantage of Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, under which the office of the us Trade Representative can invoke retaliatory sanctions against those countries that discriminate against us imports. Buckling under pressure, Japan opened its market and the result was telling. The smoking rate among 17-year-old boys shot up from 26 to 40 per cent and 5 to 15 per cent among girls between 1990 and 1996. The companies gained entry in South Korea and Taiwan similarly.

In India, the situation is alarming. The Indian government has given a 100 per cent foreign direct investment facility to multinational companies, despite protests from many organisations. One encouraging step taken by the government recently was the decision to ban the sale of cigarettes on railway platforms and trains. But experts feel these measures are not enough. "The commitment of policymakers is more cosmetic than realistic," says Kamal Nayan Kabra, a professor at the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi.

Reported by Lian Chawii and Jigyasa Taneja.

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