There are other things going on in the world besides the Middle East crisis. One is that the Philip Morris Co. and RJR-Nabisco have just signed a contract to sell 34 billion cigarettes to the Soviet Union.

I asked Boris Gum, a Russian trade official stationed in Washington, if the importation of that much tobacco would cause a coughing problem in the Soviet Union.

"Smoking has never been a health issue in the U.S.S.R.," he replied. "Finding the cigarettes has been the difficulty. We don't have any consumer goods in our country right now, so people smoke a lot to forget that this is the first day of the rest of their lives. Russian citizens would kill for cigarettes, not raspberries," he assured me.

"But with 34 billion cigarettes, the United States could bury you!"

"Why do Americans care as long as they make money on it?"

"In the past we didn't care, but now we need every Soviet citizen we can get to beat the hell out of the Iraqis."

Boris said, "Don't worry about our health. Your cigarettes are too mild to hurt our people. The major difference between our countries is that Russian cigarettes taste like blowtorches and yours taste like rice pudding."

"Are you going to put warnings on the U.S. cigarettes before you sell them?" I asked Boris.

"The Soviet Union does not believe that government should interfere in the private lives of its citizens," he said.

"What about people who object to other Russians smoking? Will their rights be respected?"

"We plan to divide the Soviet Union up into Smoking and No Smoking sections. The smokers will live in Siberia -- the nonsmokers in the Ukraine."

"How did the tobacco deal happen?" I wanted to know.

Boris told me, "The Soviets have always admired America's ability to blow smoke. We dreamed of manufacturing our own cigarette that would match the firepower of a Camel or a Virginia Slim. Unfortunately, our nicotine scientists could never come up with anything as good. So when the American cigarette companies offered to sell us cigarettes, we threw out the food budget for the next five years to buy all the butts in Philip Morris."

"When it comes to smoking, the Russians have it made."

"Not exactly," Boris said. "We're still lacking."

"In what?" I asked.

"Matches. The U.S. deal didn't include matches."

"Why not?"

"The Americans were afraid that we'd set fire to Lithuania." Boris continued, "It doesn't matter because this agreement will make it possible for the United States and the Soviet Union to become brothers again. It's a religious experience."


"Every time a Soviet citizen lights up, he says, 'Thank God for the Marlboro Man.' "