ORGANIZATIONS THAT violate U.S. sanctions on Iraq cannot usually expect sympathy from the Bush administration. Nor can groups that collude with Russian mobsters or Colombian drug gangs. If the allegations recently filed by 10 European governments in a New York district court have merit, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc. (RJR) has run a smuggling conspiracy involving all three offenses. Even so, the Bush administration persists in siding with RJR and the other cigarette giants in international tobacco-control negotiations convened by the World Health Organization.
The smuggling allegations are based on information compiled by the 10 countries' law enforcement agencies. They suggest that RJR knowingly sold large volumes of cigarettes to mobsters, partly because criminals can be helpful in gaining access to some overseas markets, and partly because they pay more than legitimate partners. The lawsuit also claims that: RJR obliged the mobsters by removing marks and numbers from its products to prevent them from being traced; the firm and its affiliates frequently switched bank accounts to cover up their actions; and its smuggling operation in Iraq yielded vast profits for Saddam Hussein's son, Uday. As well as selling a product that kills people, RJR allegedly finances people who kill people. If the suit succeeds, similar complaints against other tobacco majors are expected.
Of course, the suit also may fail, and RJR's reputation may recover to its former level. But that level is still pretty low. Tobacco causes 4.9 million deaths a year and is expected to double its kill score by 2020. That marketing advance will be achieved by hooking people least able to resist, especially teenagers in poor countries. Already, worldwide one in seven children aged 13 to 15 smokes; two-thirds say they want to quit but can't, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Cancer Institute. By 2020 an estimated 70 percent of tobacco-related deaths will occur in developing countries.
To combat this epidemic, the World Health Organization has sponsored negotiations on a global tobacco-control treaty. The penultimate round finished last month; the next and final one will take place in February. Most of the participating countries support a range of sensible measures. Tobacco advertising should be banned, except in countries (such as the United States) where this would be unconstitutional. Tobacco-control measures should not be subject to challenge on trade grounds, because trade rules should promote the free exchange of goods, not bads, such as tobacco. Smuggling should be suppressed wherever possible. Cigarette packs should carry prominent health warnings, and misleading terms such as "light" and "mild" should be forbidden. All these policies are common-sensical. And yet the Bush administration has mostly dragged its feet. It needs to start lifting them.