How the poorest will pay for US smokers

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The Independent Online
The Middle East

Piety, it seems, goes with smoking. For while Saudi Arabia strictly bans all alcohol and drugs, the Kingdom which contains Islam's two holiest shrines smokes more cigarettes a man than almost any other nation in the Arab world, a total of 2,130 per adult male every year. US cigarettes are pouring into the Gulf - Saudi's 6m people buy 3.1 per cent of the world's foreign-produced cigarettes.

In Iran, smoking has been banned in government offices and the authorities have undertaken a serious anti-smoking campaign, but statistics for its Arab neighbours show a steady climb in smoking, from 700 cigarettes per man in the early 1970s to 930 today. In the Islamic Middle East - the UN oddly putting Israel's average 2,290 cigarettes per person into the European category - 35 per cent of men smoke, but only 4 per cent of women. To puff away in the Arab world is as macho as it once was in Europe and America.

The road into town from Beirut airport is lined with Marlboro cowboys. The government issues health warnings but no self-respecting Lebanese home is without a massive bowl of Winstons, Marlboros and Kents on the living room table. Shops, restaurants, buses and cabs reek of tobacco, as they do in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and the Maghreb. Algeria more or less equals Saudi Arabia in cigarette consumption - at least 50 per cent of men smoke. In Algiers, where they have much to smoke about, the population can puff away on a "Tariq", in Cairo on a "Cleopatra". And you can forget about filters.

China

China is the world's biggest tobacco market, with 320 million smokers puffing their way through 1,700bn [that's 1,700,000,000,000] cigarettes a year. The overall number of smokers is rising by 2 per cent a year. It adds up to the biggest potential new market for foreign tobacco companies in the world. Most major cities now ban smoking in many public venues, from schools and hospitals to museums and sports stadiums; but rules are frequently ignored. In Peking the fine for illegal smoking is just 10 yuan (80p). Smoking is still permitted in government offices and very few restaurants have no-smoking areas. Since 1995, tobacco ads have been banned on radio and TV, in newspapers, magazines and cinemas. But there are many other avenues for tobacco manufacturers to explore, notably sports sponsorship. Philip Morris, the US tobacco giant, sponsors the Marlboro league, China's first professional football competition.

Foreign cigarettes account for a small fraction of the Chinese market, despite rampant smuggling. The government - via its monopoly on cigarette production - remains the world's largest cigarette manufacturer. Smoking is deeply-ingrained smoking in the culture. Both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping (until doctors ordered him to stop) were lifelong chain smokers. Government cadres are still unable to address weighty matters without a cigarette in the hand. And some of the smokiest zones are China's booming stockmarkets.

Japan

Earlier this year, a group of anti-smoking campaigners started a legal action against their prime minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, on the ground that as a smoker he was in breach of the constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to a healthy environment. He was unimpressed. "I will continue to smoke as much as possible," he promised, "bearing in mind the tax revenues from tobacco, but keeping an eye on my own health." Japanese politicians still enthusiastically acknowledge the financial benefits of their citizens' addiction. Japan Tobacco, the state monopoly, sponsors Tokyo's Tobacco and Salt Museum, dedicated to eminent smokers. Ads feature smoking athletes, smoking film stars and glamorous young people having fun. Increasingly, restaurants and public areas have no smoking areas.But the general approach is one of feeble tokenism. The health warning on packs is notoriously limp: "For the sake of our health," it timidly suggests, "let's not smoke too much."

Africa

In 1990 Africa boasted the lowest cigarette consumption level in the world; a rate comparable to that of developed countries in the 1920s. But, says, Dr Yussuf Saloojee, executive director of South Africa's National Council Against Smoking, the big cigarette companies intend to change that. In many countries people do not even know that smoking damages health. Even in South Africa only 47 per cent of people in a recent survey knew that smoking caused cancer.

In countries like Egypt and Kenya consumption of cigarettes rose by 5 and 14.7 per cent respectively between 1990 and 1995. But in South Africa and neighbouring Zimbabwe consumption has fallen just as dramatically. While vigorous health campaigns have helped, price is believed to be the prime reason for the drop. South Africa's cigarette tax is now almost 50 per cent of the retail price of a pack.

But the cigarette companies toil on undeterred and new groups are being targeted. While 33 per cent of women in the white minority smoke, cultural pressure has ensured only 10 per cent of black women have picked up the habit.

East Europe and the Balkans

At Under US$2 (pounds 1.19) for a pack of 20, Western brand-name cigarettes remain relatively cheap in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the region, where they are a status symbol, particularly among the young. Add to that far fewer controls on tobacco advertising, and very few measures aimed at regulating smoking in public places, and the region remains a veritable smokers' - and cigarette manufacturers' - paradise. Certainly that is how the big tobacco concerns have viewed it, with Philip Morris, J K Reynolds and BAT all quick to push their own brands into the region and then pump millions of dollars into buying controlling stakes in some of the big local cigarette manufacturers. In 1995 Philip Morris controlled over 75 per cent of the Czech market.

But the writing may yet be on the wall. Earlier this year Czech president Vaclav Havel, formerly an enthusiastic smoker, had half his right lung removed after contracting cancer. Although he managed one final puff (together with the health minister) immediately before the operation, he emerged afterwards a reformed character - and non-smoker. "It's a start," said Dr Hana Sovinova, long-suffering director of the Czech Republic's anti- smoking campaign.

In Serbia and Croatia smoking, alongside drinking slivovitz (plum brandy) from10am onwards, is an essential part of being a "normal" male. A common sight, especially in Serbia, is a proud father in a cafe dandling his infant son on his knee and plying him with his first strong drink and a puff to the applause of the assembled women of the family. Marlboro reigns supreme, through few packets on sale are genuine. There's a vast industry producing fake Marlboros in Montenegro. Look out for those soft packets and fuzzy designs.

India

Cigarettes are a booming business in India: production rose 17 per cent between 1995 and 1996, from 79 to 95 billion per year and foreign brands have also prospered. Phillip Morris have succeeded in making Marlboro and Marlboro Lights the cigarette of choice for middle-class youth. Domestic brands continue to sponsor sporting and artistic events, though this may be banned soon. Packs carry a small and gentle warning ("Cigarette smoking is injurious to health"). Since 1990 smoking has been banned in hospitals, schools and colleges, domestic flights and certain trains and buses. No TV or hoarding ads are allowed. More than 80 per cent of tobacco is consumed by the masses in the form of very cheap bidis (tiny cheroots), chewing tobacco and snuff. While leading brands of cigarettes cost a little under pounds 1 for 20, bidis are 10p for a bundle of 25.

Higher up the social scale, smoking is a growing fad among middle-class adolescents as young as 12 or 14. Indian women rarely smoke in public, but female students, tempted since 1990 by a domestic brand called Ms ("A Lady's Privilege") are adopting the habit, too.

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