Joe Camel has changed his name to Jose and moved to Mexico. The Marlboro Man is riding into sunsets from Poland to rural China. But as the tobacco industry ratchets up its advertising overseas, the World Health Organization is launching a global counteroffensive.
Borrowing from California's aggressive anti-smoking efforts, the U.N. agency has produced satirical advertisements in six languages for use in 191 countries. They include a poster of two Marlboro Man look-a-likes on horseback. "Bob, I've got cancer," one rugged cowboy confides to the other.
The Geneva-based WHO will gather public health officials and broadcasters from 14 countries at a Lake Tahoe area resort. today to draw lessons and inspiration from their counterparts at the California Department of Health Services.
Drawing on a $1.5 million grant by the United Nations Foundation, a charity established by a $1 billion pledge from CNN founder Ted Turner, the WHO also plans to promote international regulation of the tobacco industry and to press for excise taxes on cigarettes in foreign countries.
While the number of smokers in the United States has dropped from 40 percent of all adults in 1964 to 23 percent in 1997, the number of smokers in developing countries has been growing at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, according to the WHO.
Earlier this year, WHO's director, Gro Harlem Brundtland, invited representatives of more than 100 countries to begin negotiations on a treaty to control the use of tobacco. The agency estimates that 4 million people die annually from tobacco-related illnesses, including 1 million in China and as many as 700,000 in India. At the current rate of growth, the organization predicts, more than 10 million people will smoke themselves to death each year by 2030, 70 percent of them in the Third World.
"The consequence of the enormous gains [of anti-smoking efforts] in the United States is that tobacco companies have to make up for lost revenues domestically by looking to international markets," said Derek Yach, a South African epidemiologist who heads WHO's anti-tobacco initiative.
Elizabeth Cho, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris International, said the portrayal of the American tobacco industry as a global predator is unfair, because cigarettes have been a part of life in the developing world for many years. And she noted that some developing countries--such as Thailand, which bans all smoking advertisements--have stricter regulations than the United States.
Yach said the United Nations will tailor its campaign to conform with cultural sensitivities. A poster of a cowboy with a limp cigarette and a warning that tobacco use can cause impotence, for example, might be appropriate in Asia but not in the conservative Middle East, he said.
"Things we would never tolerate are commonplace in foreign countries," said Colleen Stevens of the tobacco control section at California's Department of Health Services. "Here, people worry when they see kids buying cigarettes. In other countries they are allowed to sell them."
CAPTION: This advertisement is part of the World Health Organization's effort to reduce smoking globally.