Big Tobacco Fires up Ad Push

The world is rapidly shrinking for smokers, but Big Tobacco isn’t retreating without a fight.”

New York City-style smoking bans are sweeping the globe, even in previously smoker-friendly countries such as Ireland, Thailand, the Netherlands and South Africa.

In France – the mecca of tobacco chic – officials actually banned the sale of cigarettes at this year’s French Open tennis tournament. Incroyable!

But cigarette companies also have upped the ante, spending $11.2 billion – the largest sum ever – to promote their products, according to a Federal Trade Commission report released last week.

The six largest U.S. tobacco companies spent 17% more on advertising and giveaways in 2001 compared with the year before, even though cigarette sales dropped almost 4% during the same period, according to the FTC, which has monitored such spending since 1967.

Cigarette manufacturers are trying to block the anti-smoking bandwagon by ramping up overseas marketing, according to the American Legacy Foundation.

The Tobacco Merchants Association, which represents manufacturers, denies there is any special push.

“A company like Philip Morris is already all over the world,” association Vice President Darryl Jayson said, saying the largest U.S. cigarette exporter has earned 80% of its revenue from overseas markets for nearly 30 years.

But Philip Morris is touting its Marlboro brand on everything from kiddie shirts and shorts to toy cars in a bid to attract smokers outside the United States.

WHO treaty a factor

Nevertheless, experts say the trend to ban smoking will accelerate now that 192 nations have approved a World Health Organization treaty that dramatically raises tobacco taxes and prohibits tobacco ads and smoking in public areas.

“It’s been wowing us with how fast it’s happening,” said Kathleen Dachille, director of the Tobacco Legal Resource Center at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Ireland outlawed smoking in all pubs and eateries Jan. 1. Norway’s Parliament voted in April for a similar ban to start early next year. And Thailand snuffed out smoking in air-conditioned restaurants in February.

The legal muscle behind the trend is the WHO’s new treaty, formally known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, adopted in Geneva on May 21.

Though the treaty does not explicitly ban smoking in public areas, signatory countries must “limit public exposure to secondhand smoke.”

“It took a long time to get these countries moving,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, who was in Geneva for the feverish round of last-minute talks.

The treaty’s critics, however, call it a paper tiger.

“It’s going to be only as effective as the signatories want it to be because there is virtually no enforcement mechanism,” said Robert Levy, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Levy is among a self-described minority of scholars who consider smoking bans unconstitutional. But even he doubts anyone will challenge the bans in court because of the overwhelming sentiments against tobacco.

“It’s a trend that’s underway. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Countries banning smoking in bars, restaurants and public places:

- Australia: In effect.

- New Zealand: In effect.

- Thailand: In effect.

- South Africa: In effect, with fines boosted last month to $1,240 from $25.

- Norway: Prohibited in government buildings and subways. Beginning next year, banned in restaurants and bars.

- Indonesia: Begins 2005.

- Ireland: Begins next year.

- Netherlands: Begins 2005. Includes 800 “coffee shops” that sell marijuana.

- Philippines: Begins 2008.

Countries with sporadic smoking bans:

- United States: About 300 municipalities have restrictions, with dozens more seeking New York-style bans.

- Canada: Some municipalities have New York-style bans.

Countries moving toward bans:

- France: French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros enforced a 1992 smoking ban for first time this year.

- Namibia: Health Ministry to introduce bill to control advertising, sale and smoking of tobacco.

- Cameroon: Soon to implement “national plan of action” on tobacco.

- South Korea: In May, health minister proposed 50% hike in cigarette prices to $2.80 a pack.