For the embattled tobacco industry, recent days have brought a mixed bag of news.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear a case the tobacco industry hopes will put to rest, finally, the question of whether cigarette makers can be sued for illnesses related to smoking.Cigarette makers welcome the case because they are betting the court will rule that the government-required health warning labels bar smokers from suing.
The bad news came in The New England Journal of Medicine of March 28. Two articles in the respected publication hit the tobacco industry for deceptive advertising and marketing practices.
One contends that sponsorship of auto races and other events by cigarette companies circumvents the laws against ads for cigarettes on TV.
The other longer and more comprehensive article charges cigarette firms with unethical behavior in the way they market their products in developing countries. Cigarette firms are counting on the foreign market to continue booming in the 1990s.
Exports of tobacco leaf and product nearly doubled in the 1980s as Japan and other markets opened, with a little prodding from the U.S. government. The international demand for cigarettes is growing rapidly while the domestic demand continues to slide.
Enter Dr. Michele Barry, who runs an international program at Yale University medical school that sends physicians to developing countries. Citing various publications, she contends in her journal article that tobacco companies export cigarettes that are far higher in tar and nicotine than those sold here but that their brand names imply a connection to health and the good life. She also says companies should provide the same warning labels on exported cigarettes as on those sold here.
Spokesmen for two of the largest international tobacco firms denied her claims.
"In most cases, our cigarettes are far lighter than local cigarettes and lighter than similar brands here," said Brenda Follmer of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco International. She conceded "the blend may be different to satisfy the tastes of the market."
"We do put warning labels on where they're required," she said.
The tobacco industry insists it would not be appropriate for the United States to dictate warning labels on cigarettes being sold in foreign countries.
Barry stuck by her report. "I don't think people understand how the tobacco industry is working," she said. She said health statistics already show the effects of increased tobacco use in the Third World.
Tobacco-related cancers were unheard of in India and Pakistan 20 or 30 years ago, she said. But since cigarette consumption has skyrocketed, lung cancer has become the biggest cancer killer in Pakistan, and India has seen a six-fold increase in deaths from bronchitis and emphysema.
She recalled former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop saying, "At a time when we are pleading with foreign governments to stop the export of cocaine, it is the height of hypocrisy for the United States to export tobacco."