My colleague Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) complained about an "abrupt policy shift" in the U.S. position on foreign barriers to the export of U.S. cigarettes {op-ed, June 26}. He suggested that because of the dangers associated with smoking, it is improper for our government to negotiate the removal of trade barriers.

In fact, there is nothing new about our government's policy. What is new is the effort by the antismoking lobby and its supporters in Congress to reposition a trade issue as a health issue.

Since 1985, the U.S. trade representative has negotiated the removal of unfair trade barriers in three countries that restricted the export of U.S. cigarettes -- Japan, Taiwan and South Korea -- and is negotiating the removal of similar barriers in Thailand.

Thailand enjoys free access to the U.S. market. It has a trade surplus with the United States and exports a higher percentage of its tobacco than we do. Its tobacco exports compete on the world market with tobacco grown by U.S. farmers. Meanwhile, Thailand bans U.S. tobacco products, while expanding its tobacco exports and increasing its cigarette-production capacity.

Tobacco products make a major contribution to the U.S. trade balance. While we consumed hundreds of millions of dollars more than we produced in the 1980s, the tobacco industry exported nearly $25 billion more than it imported. In 1989, for example, cigarette and leaf tobacco produced a $4.2 billion net trade surplus and tobacco exports amounted to $5 billion. These trade-balance contributions are coming largely from increased tobacco exports to Asian nations.

According to a recent Commerce Department report, every $1 billion in exports creates 25,000 jobs for Americans. Thus, tobacco exports in 1989 accounted for nearly 125,000 jobs. Since 1985, export opportunities have allowed U.S. tobacco farmers to produce and market more tobacco despite a declining market here and increased competition abroad.

The introduction of U.S. cigarettes in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea has not increased smoking in those countries. Cigarette consumption in Japan has not changed significantly in the past decade, despite U.S. cigarettes becoming freely available in 1987. And in Taiwan and South Korea, cigarette sales were increasing before the advent of U.S. cigarettes. However, the rate of increase slowed following the opening of these markets. Eliminating unfair cigarette trade barriers would not mean that people in these Asian countries would smoke more -- it would only mean they would continue to smoke cigarettes produced by local Asian monopolies and other foreign cigarette manufacturers.

If unfair trade barriers are allowed to remain, we can expect a higher U.S. trade deficit, reduced U.S. farm income and the loss of thousands of American jobs. Our government should work to ensure U.S. cigarette manufacturers, like U.S. manufacturers of other products, a level playing field on which to compete abroad. -- Thomas J. Bliley Jr. The writer is a Republican representative from Virginia.