Marlboro goes East

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The Independent Online
Consumption of cigarettes in many Western countries has peaked. In Britain, for example, consumption is slowly falling, as it is in the United States and particularly Canada. The tobacco industry, with diminishing hopes of expanding its markets in the West, has turned its multinational eye to the East.

The targeting of these vast markets has been quietly growing since the Eighties. In 1989 142 billion US-made cigarettes were sold abroad - 24 billion more than the previous year. In China alone there are 300 million smokers, mostly men. Chinese women are just starting to acquire the habit. The market is huge and growing.

Last year when BAT Industries, the tobacco and insurance giant, announced a £1.8bn profit, it took the opportunity to announce that its latest marketing campaign was to be in the former Soviet Union.

"If every British smoker stopped tomorrow, it would not matter to the tobacco companies," says Dr Judith Mackay. She is based in Hong Kong and advises Asian governments and health promotion agencies on strategies to combat the sophisticated sales onslaught by Western companies.

"We are on an economic roll in Asia and young people are increasingly able to afford Western goods. Cigarettes are enormously chic. Young Chinese men in Peking and Shanghai carry Western cigarette packets with two holes: from one they offer Western cigarettes to anyone they want to impress; they use the other for their own local cheap brand to smoke themselves."

Asia is in the early stages of its smoking epidemic. About 65 per cent of men smoke and this has yet to reach its peak. About 5 per cent of women smoke. They are just beginning. The situation is akin to that in the UK in the Thirties and Forties.

David Simpson, former director of Ash (Action on Smoking and Health), now specialises in the international tobacco scene. He, too, believes that China is the new centre of gravity for the promotion of cigarettes and reports extensive sponsorship of sports events and direct advertising by the Western companies.

"The most promising policy for the tobacco industry is to join forces with the local tobacco industry and bring in Western marketing tactics."