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The East: Marlboro Man Rides High As Smoking, Death Rates Soar

Prague, 26 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Marlboro man, an advertising figure synonymous with the world's largest multinational cigarette company, is riding high in central and eastern Europe.

The well-known cowboy, a creation of U.S.-based Philip Morris, is having a tough time at home. Just last week, American cigarette companies reached a tentative agreement under which they would pay $368.5 billion over 25 years to help cover the domestic health costs of smoking.

What's more, the cigarette manufacturers face stagnant sales and growing pressure from U.S. anti-smoking groups. But in Europe's former socialist states, the Marlboro man is more robust than ever.

In Prague, movie goers sometimes get a heavy dose of him in a lengthy advertisement preceding a film. The mythic character's chiseled features are accompanied by displays of fine horsemanship, incredible scenery from the American West, and a soundtrack suggesting high adventure.

In Warsaw, Philip Morris is using a more personal approach. Some of its sales staff of 200 are engaged in direct person-to-person pitches, approaching smokers with free samples in an effort to get them to switch brands.

In Moscow, Philip Morris sales representatives drive about in new, expensive red and white cars with their company's brand names written in large letters. And in the Russian capital as throughout the East, the Marlboro man stares down at passersby from innumerable billboards.

These and other methods are meeting with startling success. Martin Feldman, an American industry analyst, estimates that the company's exports to the East have increased over the last four years by more than 400 percent, reaching some 125 billion cigarettes last year. And other U.S. manufacturers, including R.J. Reynolds, are following its lead.

One slightly dated but still revealing measure of the presence of western cigarette companies in the region is provided by the World Health Organization (WHO). It estimates that in 1993 they accounted for 40 percent of all foreign advertising in Russia.

Several factors help make central and eastern Europe a profitable and fast growing market for U.S. cigarette makers. First, restrictions on advertising were largely non-existent in the years after the fall of communism. Second, the quality of domestically produced cigarettes is generally low. Third, U.S. brands have a certain cache in lands where many people, particularly youth, seek to emulate the West.

However, the key factor that makes the East a boom market is the high level of cigarette consumption. In the U.S., a decades-long public health campaign warning about the risks of smoking has pushed the proportion of adults who smoke down to some 25 percent. But in central and eastern Europe, the love affair with the cigarette continues. The WHO estimates that throughout the region, some 60 percent of males and 30 percent of females over 15 smoke -- the highest rates in the world.

The WHO says Russia leads the world in the proportion of population that smokes -- 67 percent of men and 30 percent of women. Poland, meanwhile, has in recent years ranked at or near the top in per capita cigarette consumption. The peoples of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and the states of the former Yugoslavia are also lighting up at a pace above the global average. Years of heavy smoking in the East help explain another, more sobering set of statistics. A widely quoted epidemiologist from Britain's Oxford University, Richard Peto, estimates that the former socialist countries of Europe have the highest death rate from smoking in the world.

The WHO estimates that the death toll in the region hit some 700,000 in 1995. In Russia alone, an estimated 280,000 people now die annually from smoking, most as a result of either heart disease or cancer. That is a smoking-related death rate more than three times the global average.

These kinds of numbers are now helping to fuel an anti-smoking backlash in central and eastern Europe. Laws restricting cigarette advertising have been passed in several states including Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and Croatia and are under consideration in Romania.

However, an example from Croatia shows there are often creative ways to get around such restrictions. One domestic cigarette maker went ahead with television advertising by simply highlighting the town that gave their product its name. And in much of the region a tactic long used in the West is gaining favor -- cigarette makers are sponsoring sporting events which offer access to the eagerly sought youth market.

In Poland a more comprehensive approach to discourage smoking is underway. Along with restrictions on advertising, excise taxes have been imposed and smoking in some public places is now banned. The approach contributed to a seven percent drop in consumption last year.

Now, Polish political leaders are initiating a public information effort to highlight smoking's health consequences. A recently passed law will require that by year's end, 30 percent of each package of cigarettes be covered by a health warning. Making the push more personal, Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz announced that he was quitting smoking to set a good example for fellow Poles.

That step was in marked contrast to the image presented late last year by Czech President Vaclav Havel -- a long-time human rights campaigner popular at home and abroad. Havel was photographed smoking with the country's health minister just before undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor along with half a lung. Since then, Havel has reportedly heeded his doctors orders and has quit.