EAST BERLIN -- The first and only Westerner ever to stand watch over East Germany's infamous Checkpoint Charlie border crossing was a latecomer: a lean, rugged guy with a stare even the toughest border guard couldn't match -- the Marlboro Man.

The symbol of the West's most popular cigarette -- along with the Lucky Strike bull's-eye and the Camel camel -- has become omnipresent in the streets and shops of East Germany.

As health concerns trim the ranks of smokers in many Western countries, international tobacco companies have discovered a new and still-growing market in East Germany and Eastern Europe.

With political and economic barriers tumbling, three large Western cigarette companies have wasted no time in taking over the East German cigarette industry. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris Inc. and the West German Reemtsma Cigarettenfabriken GmbH agreed to split the East German plants among them. The Western companies guaranteed the jobs of the country's 5,500 tobacco workers. "This could be our opening to Eastern Europe," said Udo Wolff, spokesman for Philip Morris in Munich. "These people know the market in the socialist countries."

The Western companies are revamping factories and have already sent sales forces numbering in the hundreds into East Germany, a country of 16 million people. Salesmen are using every trick in the marketing textbook -- from umbrellas for street-side cafes to signs for corner stores -- to get their names known and products bought.

While the European Community debates a total ban on cigarette advertising, East German newspapers and shop windows have been covered with colorful brand logos. Billboards, previously unknown in the country, are suddenly everywhere.

New York City has prohibited cigarette companies from handing out free samples, but in the first weeks since the German economies merged July 1, it's been hard to walk through any East German town square without being offered cigarettes by white-costumed Marlboro cowgirls.

Throughout East Germany, American Tobacco Co. and its Lucky Strike brand have been luring customers by giving away trips to the United States and staging an enormously popular promotion, the "One-to-One Exchange," a play on the rate West Germany gave East Germans for their nearly worthless currency.

"Step up and exchange your old cigarettes for Lucky Strikes," shouts a hawker on East Berlin's Alexanderplatz. "Start your new life right here." Hundreds of truckloads of Cabinets, East Germany's most popular cigarettes, have been taken away and destroyed, the promotion's East Berlin coordinator boasted.

"They believe Western cigarettes are better than their own," said Christoph Walther, vice president of Reemtsma, the largest West German cigarette maker, which before World War II owned seven plants in what is now East Germany. "And the quality difference is extreme. The socialist countries could never buy the tobacco they wanted; they had to settle for low-grade plants" from Pakistan, India and Bulgaria.

The push in the East is crucial to tobacco companies. Because anti-smoking attitudes grow more popular as countries become more affluent, the companies are hurrying to win converts before the East German economic transformation is complete.

"In the long run, East Germany will not be different from the other northern European countries where smoking is going down," Walther said. But for now, the East is prime territory.

While cigarette sales in the United States have dropped by almost 3 percent a year, sales in West Germany jumped by 2 percent last year -- an increase credited almost entirely to the influx of East Germans and other Eastern Europeans.

Western Europeans smoke more than Americans, and Eastern Europeans out-smoke their western neighbors. About one-third of West German adults smoke and at least 40 percent of East Germans have the habit, according to Wolff.

Most Western investors have shied away from pumping money into East Germany thus far, largely because key legal questions remain about the ability of Western companies to own property and fire workers in existing East German plants.

The response to the drive has been mixed. Western brands are selling well, but so are the old East German brands.

"We had to learn that people get used to bad quality, and good quality can seem like there's something wrong with it," Walther said.

East Germans may like their old Cabinets -- largely because they contain about 50 percent more nicotine than do most Western cigarettes -- but their old taste is now gone for good.

Reemtsma bought the trademark and immediately relaunched Cabinets with new packaging, better tobacco and 40 percent less tar. Soon, the amount of nicotine will also be dramatically reduced.

Cigarette companies say they are cutting the nicotine levels of East German cigarettes in part because they think people will grow to like a lighter taste, and in part to comply with European Community standards, which will soon govern East Germany as they do Western Europe.

Critics say the introduction of lighter cigarettes is not meant to ease health concerns, but rather to sell more cigarettes.

"The lighter the cigarette, the more people smoke," said Peter Kosek, vice chairman of West Germany's Nonsmoker Initiative. "If each cigarette has half the nicotine, the smoker must double the number of cigarettes smoked to avoid withdrawal symptoms."

The Western companies are trying to get their new customers used to not only lower nicotine and higher prices, but also Western advertising.

"We have to teach them that there are differences between brands," Walther said. "You have to create the demand."

Reemtsma started by using its West German ad campaigns. "But we quickly learned that you have to have 30 years of experience as a consumer in an advertising environment before you get the jokes in the ads," Walther said.

For example, a Reemtsma brand called West has a long-running and quite successful ad campaign called "Test the West" in which young, beautiful people offer cigarettes to bizarre people -- an Elvis look-a-like, a flasher -- in an effort to show them how to be cool.

"The East Germans just didn't get it," Walther said. "They couldn't understand why we would show ugly people in the ads. So we went back to stories and nice pictures. Less sophisticated, fewer jokes."

But advertising aimed solely at East Germans is not likely to last long.

"We started with a few special ads to introduce ourselves, but then we stopped," said Peter Goldammer, creative director of Scholz and Friends, a Hamburg advertising agency that represents Peter Stuyvesant and several other Reemtsma brands. "If the East Germans thought we were doing different ads for them, they'd think we were treating them as second-class Germans who need to be taught."

West Germany's small and thus far largely ineffectual anti-smoking movement complains that Western companies are cynically using advertising to push lighter products because they know East Germans accustomed to heavy dosages of nicotine will buy more Western cigarettes with low-nicotine levels.

Cigarette executives say their push to the East is not designed to addict more people to smoking, but only to make East Germans believe in brand distinctions.

"People say advertising is responsible for increased cigarette use," Goldammer said. "But the truth is, people in countries without advertising are the real heavy smokers. They are not concerned about health like the Western world is now. They like to smoke."