An article last Wednesday reported incorrectly that possession of American cigarettes is illegal in South Korea. Their importation and sale is limited strictly. (Published 2/23/88)

Pressure from White House officials has forced the Department of Health and Human Services to abandon plans to discuss U.S. tobacco export policies at a public meeting Thursday, according to invited speakers.

Tobacco and U.S. trade policy was announced several weeks ago as the topic of the meeting of the Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health, which is chaired by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and coordinates tobacco policies among various federal agencies.

Speakers were asked to discuss health implications of recent U.S. efforts to open foreign markets, particularly in Asia, to U.S. tobacco products. And representatives from the Departments of State, Commerce and Agriculture were invited.

But strong objections last week from the Office of the United States Trade Representative, a White House office that coordinates trade policy, prompted HHS officials to change the topic to international health consequences of smoking. Speakers were notified of the last-minute change by express letters that were to arrive yesterday.

Michael Pertschuk, former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission and one of the invited speakers, said HHS officials told his office that "there was tremendous heat from the White House, great anger." He said White House officials "ostensibly argued that they {HHS officials} have no business being involved in foreign affairs."

Pertschuk is codirector of a private center for public-interest lobbying.

Gregory N. Connolly, a dentist with the Massachusetts health department who is to address the meeting on behalf of the American Public Health Association, said he is "very surprised by this. It's my understanding that the White House was very upset with this meeting because it would shed a negative light on what it's done in Far Eastern trade relations."

An HHS spokesman confirmed that the agenda had been changed "after some discussions internally and with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative." He added, "Trade policy is not something that HHS should be dealing with."

Pertschuk and Connolly said they think that U.S. tobacco exports are an appropriate topic for the HHS committee and that they do not intend to revise their planned remarks.

"The State Department, Commerce and various members of the Senate and House have become agents for the spread of disease in the Third World, which is not an admirable quality for the United States," Pertschuk said.

At an international conference on smoking and health in Tokyo last year, a World Health Organization official said that, primarily because of increased smoking in Asia, the number of new cases of lung cancer reported annually worldwide, currently 600,000, will rise to 2 million by the year 2000, nearly 1 million of them in China.

Spokesmen for the State Department and the trade office said they had been informed of the change in agenda and do not plan to send representatives to Thursday's meeting.

"It's the administration's position that cigarettes should be treated the same as any other trade item," said Gary Holmes, a spokesman for the trade office. "Cigarettes are not illegal in the United States. They're not illegal in {foreign} countries. What we are looking for is for American products to be treated equally with domestic products."

He added that officials at the trade office and other federal agencies think that the HHS committee "was overstepping its mandate in getting involved in trade issues."

Connolly said U.S. trade officials had aggressively sought to open markets for American tobacco products in several East Asian countries that until recently had government-owned monopolies on tobacco.

"The only trade success story we seem to have with Japan is selling them cigarettes," he said. After import of U.S. tobacco products, he said, smoking in Japan stopped declining, and tobacco sales have increased 2 percent in the last nine months.

Former Reagan administration officials Richard V. Allen and Michael K. Deaver were hired by U.S. tobacco companies to lobby South Korea to allow importation of their products. Possession of American cigarettes is illegal there.

"We're taking a product Americans are rejecting in record numbers and dumping it over there," Connolly said.

The committee meeting is scheduled at 9 a.m. Thursday in the HHS building at 200 Independence Ave. SW.