By Glenn Frankel
Throughout the bustling cities of a newly prosperous Asia and the ruined economies of the former Soviet Bloc, the American cigarette is king. It has become a symbol of affluence and sophistication, a statement and an aspiration. At home -- where the American tobacco industry is besieged by anti-smoking activists, whistle-blowers, government regulators, grand juries and plaintiffs' lawyers -- cigarette consumption has undergone a 15-year decline. Thanks to foreign sales, however, the companies are making larger profits than ever before.
But the industry did not launch its campaign for new overseas markets alone. The Reagan and Bush administrations used their economic and political clout to pry open markets in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and China for American cigarettes. At a time when one arm of the government was warning Americans about the dangers of smoking, another was helping the industry recruit a new generation of smokers abroad.
To this day, many U.S. officials see cigarette exports as strictly an issue of free trade and economic fairness, while tobacco industry critics and public health advocates consider it a moral question. Even the Clinton administration finds itself torn: It is the most vocally anti-smoking administration in U.S. history, yet it has been in the uncomfortable role of challenging or delaying some anti-smoking efforts overseas.
At the same time, fledgling anti-smoking movements are rising up with support from American activists, passing restrictions that in some cases are tougher than those in the United States.
Having exported its cigarette industry, the United States is now in effect exporting its anti-smoking movement as well.
Just as the industry's overseas campaign has produced new smokers and new profits, it has also produced new consequences. International epidemiologist Richard Peto of Oxford University estimates that smoking is responsible for 3 million deaths per year worldwide; he projects that 30 years from now the number will have reached 10 million, most of them in developing nations. In China alone, Peto says 50 million people who are currently 18 or younger eventually will die from smoking-related diseases. "In most countries, the worst is yet to come," he warned.
Asia is where tobacco's search for new horizons began and where the industry came to rely most on Washington's help. U.S. officials in effect became the industry's lawyers, agents and collaborators. Prominent politicians such as Robert J. Dole, Jesse Helms, Dan Quayle and Al Gore played a role. "No matter how this process spins itself out," George Griffin, commercial counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, told Matthew N. Winokur, public affairs manager of Philip Morris Asia, in a "Dear Matt" letter in January 1986, "I want to emphasize that the embassy and the various U.S. government agencies in Washington will keep the interests of Philip Morris and the other American cigarette manufacturers in the forefront of our daily concerns."
U.S. officials not only insisted that Asian countries allow American companies to sell cigarettes, they also demanded that the companies be allowed to advertise, hold giveaway promotions and sponsor concerts and sports events in what critics say was a blatant appeal to women and young people. They regularly consulted with company representatives and relied upon the industry's arguments and research. They ignored the protests of public health officials in the United States and Asia who warned of the consequences of the market openings they sought. Indeed, their constant slogan was that health factors were irrelevant. This was, they insisted, solely an issue of free trade.
But then-Vice President Quayle suggested another motive when he told a North Carolina farming audience in 1990 that the government also was seeking to help the tobacco industry compensate for shrinking markets at home. "I don't think it's any news to North Carolina tobacco farmers that the American public as a whole is smoking less," said Quayle. "We ought to think about the exports. We ought to think about opening up markets, breaking down the barriers."
A handful of American health officials vigorously opposed the government's campaign, yet were either stymied or ignored. "I feel the most shameful thing this country did was to export disease, disability and death by selling our cigarettes to the world," said former surgeon general C. Everett Koop. "What the companies did was shocking, but even more appalling was the fact that our own government helped make it possible."
Waging the War
Clayton Yeutter, an affable, high-octane Nebraska Republican with a wide smile and serious political aspirations, came to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in 1985 with a mission: to put a dent in the record U.S. trade deficit by forcing foreign countries to lower their barriers against American products.
Yeutter (pronounced "Yi-ter") took office at a time when Washington was on the verge of declaring a trade war against some of its staunchest allies in the Far East. Asian tigers such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand were running up huge trade surpluses with the United States on goods ranging from T-shirts to computer chips to luxury sedans. The U.S. annual trade deficit in 1984 totaled a record $123 billion. Congressional Democrats proposed a 25 percent surcharge on products from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Brazil, while the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved resolutions calling for retaliation against Japan if it didn't increase its purchases of exports.
In heeding that warning, the Reagan administration turned to a small, elite and little-known federal agency. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) had only 164 permanent employees, but it enjoyed cabinet-level status and a self-styled, half-joking, half-serious reputation as "the Jedi knights of the trade world." Operating out of the four-story, Civil War-era Winder Building on 17th Street NW, USTR's staff was known for its dedication and aggressiveness. Most staff members came from departments such as Commerce, State and Agriculture, and they saw the trade rep's office as a place where they could practice their craft free from the fetters of larger, more rigid bureaucracies. They worked long hours and displayed a fierce loyalty to each other and the agency they served.
In 1985 they got a new boss to match their mood. Yeutter had worked as a deputy trade representative during the Ford administration, then went on to become president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. He came back to Washington with an eye toward using USTR as a launching pad for becoming a U.S. senator, secretary of agriculture or even vice president, according to friends. Yeutter was not a member of Ronald Reagan's inner circle, and he was eager to show the president what he could do. "They told me they needed a high-energy person," he recalled in an interview. "I told them I was ready to hit the ground running."
Yeutter knew that USTR had a weapon in its arsenal that was tailor-made for softening up recalcitrant trading partners. Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act empowered USTR to launch a full-scale investigation of unfair trading practices and required that Washington invoke retaliatory sanctions within a year if a targeted government did not agree to change its ways. Launching a 301 was like setting a time bomb: both sides could hear the clock ticking.
Yeutter had no trouble persuading the administration to allow him to use Section 30l aggressively. "There was a lot of momentum for attempting something new," he said.
The U.S. tobacco industry had been trying for years to get a foothold in these promising new Asian markets. In 1981 the big three -- Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and Brown & Williamson -- had formed a trade group called the U.S. Cigarette Export Association to pursue a joint industry-wide policy on the issue. But the companies had felt frustrated during the first term of the Reagan administration.
Japan, the West's second largest market for cigarettes, remained virtually closed to American brands due to high tariffs and discriminatory distribution. South Korean law effectively made it a crime to buy or sell a pack of foreign cigarettes. Taiwan and Thailand remained tightly shut. All of these countries but Taiwan were signatories to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and Taipei hoped to join soon. Yet each appeared to violate free trade principles.
"In international trade terms, it's really very rare that the issues are so clear-cut and so blatant," recalled Owen C. Smith, a Philip Morris foreign trade expert who serves as president of the association. "These countries were sitting with published laws which on their face discriminated against American products. It was an untenable situation. . . . These were, frankly, open-and-shut cases."
When Yeutter and his staff looked at the cigarette business in these countries, they saw blatant hypocrisy. Each Asian government sought to justify its ban on imported cigarettes in the name of public health, yet each had its own protected, state-controlled tobacco monopoly that manufactured and sold cigarettes -- and provided large amounts of tax revenue to the government. The state companies' marketing techniques were in many ways just as cynical as those of the American companies. In Taiwan, for example, the most popular state brand was called Long Life. These were classic, state-run companies; bloated and inefficient, they produced overpriced, low-quality and poorly marketed cigarettes that could never compete with jazzier American brands in free competition.
Health was simply a smoke screen, Yeutter quickly decided, raised by recalcitrant foreign governments hooked on cigarette profits. "I would have had no problem with Japan or Korea or Taiwan putting up genuine health restrictions," he insisted. "But that's not what these governments were doing. They were restricting trade, and it was just blatant."
What Yeutter didn't seem to appreciate was that the very flaws of the state-run monopolies were exactly what a doctor might have ordered: Their high price and poor quality had helped limit smoking mostly to older men who had the money and taste for harsh, tar-heavy local brands. The monopolies seldom, if ever, advertised and did not target the great untapped markets of women and young people. Per capita sales remained low in every country except Japan. From a public health standpoint, maintaining the monopolies was far preferable to opening the gates to American companies with their milder blends and state-of-the-art marketing.
"When the multinational companies penetrate a new country, they not only sell U.S. cigarettes but they transform the entire market," said Gregory Connolly, a veteran anti-smoking activist who heads the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program. "They transform how tobacco is presented, how it's advertised, how it's promoted. And the result is the creation of new demand, especially among women and young people."
Connolly, who traveled widely through Asia, documented how American companies skirted advertising restrictions by sponsoring televised rock concerts and sporting events, placing cigarette brands in movies and lending their brand names to non-tobacco products such as clothing and sports gear. A Madonna concert in Spain became a "Salem Madonna Concert" when televised in Hong Kong, while the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York became the "Salem Tennis Open" in Malaysia. Tennis stars Pat Cash, Michael Chang, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe appeared in live matches in Malaysia sponsored by RJR.
None of this troubled Yeutter and his trade warriors. They saw foreign advertising restrictions as one more form of trade discrimination. The interagency committee that advised Yeutter on the issue consisted of representatives from State, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor and Treasury, but not from Health and Human Services. There was no one with a public health or tobacco control background to argue that there was a link between advertising and health.
The companies convinced Yeutter t hat helping them sell cigarettes meant helping American trade. They produced studies showing that aside from heavy aviation parts, cigarettes were America's most successful manufactured export in terms of the net balance of trade. They estimated that cigarette exports -- largely to Western Europe and Latin America -- accounted for 250,000 full-time jobs in the United States and contributed more than $4 billion to the positive side of the trade ledger.
The industry also turned up the political heat. In a January 1984 letter to an official in the Commerce Department, Robert H. Bockman, then director of corporate affairs for Philip Morris Asia, described trade barriers against his company's products in South Korea. He then went on to discuss what he called "the politics of tobacco in this election year. Attached please find a listing of the 1980 election results in the major tobacco-growing areas in the United States. You will note that the margin of victory for the president [Ronald Reagan] was narrow in some key areas."
Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who at the time chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, also intervened. In July 1986 Helms wrote to Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone congratulating him on his recent election victory and pointing out that American cigarettes accounted for less than 2 percent of the Japanese market. "Your friends in Congress will have a better chance to stem the tide of anti-Japanese trade sentiment if and when they can cite tangible examples of your doors being opened to American products," wrote Helms. "I urge that you make a commitment to establish a timetable for allowing U.S. cigarettes a specific share of your market. May I suggest a goal of 20 percent within the next 18 months."
At Yeutter's urging, Reagan decided not to wait for a formal filing from the industry against Japan. Instead, for the first time the White House filed three 301 complaints with USTR in September 1985, one of them against Japanese restrictions on the sale of U.S. cigarettes.
According to the USTR log of the case, U.S. officials presented a lengthy questionnaire at their opening session with Japanese trade representatives, demanding detailed data on the Japanese market. Meanwhile, other U.S. bureaucrats began drawing up lists of products for possible retaliation -- all part of what one negotiator called the "ratcheting-up process."
Japanese negotiators hung tough over the course of 14 sessions. Joseph A. Massey, who was in charge of trade negotiations with Japan, recalled they argued that Japan Tobacco, the state-run cigarette monopoly, was too inefficient to withstand U.S. competition, and that in any case the Americans should continue the previous long-standing practice of giving Japan an indefinite time period to comply.
Massey recalled one other unusual aspect of the negotiation: Industry representatives from both sides sat in on bargaining sessions. "The Japanese insisted that Japan Tobacco should be in the room," he said. "We said, `If that's the case, there needs to be parallelism.' . . . They did not sit at the table. They sat quietly along the back wall."
Finally in late September 1986, a year after the 301 complaint was filed, Yeutter received a phone call at his McLean home late one evening from Japanese Finance Minister Kiichi Miyazawa. The minister wanted more time, but Yeutter was unrelenting. He recalls telling Miyazawa that the completed retaliation documents were to be forwarded to the White House the following day. "I said, `I'm sorry, Mr. Minister, but your government has run out of time,' " Yeutter recalled.
Within days the Japanese capitulated, signing an agreement allowing in American-made cigarettes. By giving in on such a politically well-connected product as cigarettes, Japanese commentators said, Tokyo hoped to buy time on other trade issues. It was, commented the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, a "blood offering."
And so Japan was transformed into a battleground for the world's biggest tobacco companies. Philip Morris aimed at Japanese women with Virginia Slims; Japan Tobacco fought back with Misty, a thin, mild-blended cigarette. When RJR wooed young smokers with Joe Camel, JT countered with Dean, named after fabled actor James Dean. Cigarettes became the second most-advertised product on television in Tokyo -- up from 40th just a year earlier.
Today, imported brands control 21 percent of the Japanese market and earn more than $7 billion in annual sales. Female smoking is at an all-time high, according to Japan Tobacco's surveys, and one study showed female college freshmen four times more likely to smoke than their mothers.
Yeutter and his colleagues insisted they had done nothing for tobacco they would not have done for any other industry. But the fact remained that at a time when the United States could not overcome Japan's resistance on a broad range of exports -- from beef to cars to supercomputers -- U.S. cigarettes flourished, thanks to the perseverance of the trade warriors.
Into South Korea
The next target was South Korea, which had a $1.7 billion domestic tobacco market. The U.S. tobacco industry filed a 301 complaint against Seoul in January 1988, and USTR initiated its investigation a month later. South Korea's state cigarette monopoly had done little advertising over the years, and a few months before the 301 case, the Seoul government had formally outlawed cigarette ads. But the United States insisted on defining "fair access" as including the right to advertise.
Even before the formal complaint was filed, tobacco state lawmakers and their allies had supported opening South Korea's market. Senators Dole (R-Kan.) and Helms and 14 others -- including Gore, then a senator from Tennessee -- wrote to South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan in July 1987 demanding that tobacco companies be allowed "the right to import and distribute without discriminatory taxes and duties, as well as the right to advertise and promote their products."
The companies did their own work as well. RJR hired former Reagan national security adviser Richard Allen to lobby the government in Seoul and give the company more influence than its corporate rivals. Philip Morris gave a $250,000 contract to former White House aide Michael Deaver, who hired two former USTR officials and later obtained a $475,000 lobbying contract with the South Korean government, according to testimony at his 1987 trial for perjury. (Deaver was convicted of lying to Congress about his lobbying activities after he left the White House.)
In May 1988 Seoul formally agreed to open its doors to American brands. The deal allowed cigarette signs and promotions at shops, 120 pages of advertisements in magazines and cigarette company sponsorship of social, cultural and sporting events. Cigarettes quickly became one of the most heavily advertised products in South Korea; from no advertising in 1986, American tobacco companies spent $25 million in 1988. Student activists, anti-smoking groups, the South Korean consumers' union and the local cigarette retail association all staged protests against "tobacco imperialism" and boycotted American cigarettes, and the companies accused the state cigarette monopoly of constant violations of the agreement. Still, within a year, American companies had captured 6 percent of the market.
USTR also made fast work of Taiwan. On the heels of the Japanese agreement, Taiwan had agreed in October 1985 to liberalize barriers to wine, beer and cigarettes. But a year passed and the market remained effectively closed. Reagan then ordered Yeutter to propose "proportional countermeasures," while U.S. officials threatened to oppose Taiwan's application for membership in GATT.
"Since Taiwan wasn't a GATT member, we were not under GATT constraints," said a senior USTR negotiator. "I hate to say it, but you can do whatever you want with Taiwan and Taiwan knows it. They're much more vulnerable than other countries."
Six weeks after Reagan's order, Taiwan folded. "The atmosphere in the negotiations was very bad for us," recalled Chien-Shien Wang, then deputy minister of commerce, who was Taiwan's chief negotiator. "We were told the U.S. had lost patience with us and was about to put us on the 301 list. So we had no choice but to agree."
While some USTR officials now concede they were uneasy about using their power on behalf of America's most controversial industry, they say they had no choice.
"For us it was an issue of, it's a U.S. product and it deserves fair market access," said Robert Cassidy, the current assistant U.S. trade representative for Asia and the Pacific. "There are lots of products people here might prefer not to pursue -- I myself didn't much like exporting machines to manufacture bullets. But that's not the issue. The issue was, is this discriminatory treatment or not?"
Following the agreement, consumption of imported cigarettes in Taiwan soared. According to one industry trade journal, foreign brands went from 1 percent of annual cigarette sales to more than 20 percent in less than two years, while state-manufactured brands declined accordingly. RJR sponsored a dance at a Taipei disco popular with teenagers and offered free admission for five empty packs of Winstons. Studies by Taiwanese public health specialist Ted Chen, now a professor at Tulane University Medical Center, tracked a steadily rising rate of smoking among high schoolers.
The Anti-Smoking Crusade
The 301 cases were a boon to the industry. The Boston-based National Bureau of Economic Research estimated in a recent report that sales of American cigarettes were 600 percent higher in the targeted countries in 1991 than they would have been without U.S. intervention. In 1990, after he became secretary of agriculture, Yeutter told a news conference, "I just saw the figures on tobacco exports here a few days ago and, my, have they turned out to be a marvelous success story."
The tobacco companies insist that the government's efforts merely allowed them to gain a fair share of existing markets. But the National Bureau projected that American entry pushed up average cigarette consumption per capita by nearly 10 percent in the targeted countries. The report said fiercer price competition and sophisticated advertising campaigns had stimulated the increase.
Then-surgeon general Koop, a fierce critic of the industry, first heard about the 301s when he visited the Japanese Health Ministry during a swing through the Far East in the mid-1980s. "They greeted me with, `What are you trying to do for us? We will never be able to pay the medical bill,' " he recalled. "I had no idea what they were talking about."
Koop soon found out that USTR was, in his words, "trading Marlboros for Toyotas." But it took several years for anti-smoking activists to become mobilized. In 1988 Koop attempted to hold a hearing on cigarette exports in his Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health, but said he was advised a few days before that the Reagan White House wanted him to drop the subject and uninvite witnesses such as Judith Mackay, a prominent anti-smoking activist from Hong Kong.
Koop refused. Officials from State and Commerce who had agreed to appear suddenly withdrew, but Mackay and a parade of critics testified. She accused the United States of waging "a new Opium War" against Asia, an allusion to Britain's 19th-century effort to force China to allow trade of the addictive drug.
When Yeutter learned of the criticism, he wrote to Koop to defend his record. "I have never smoked, have no desire to do so and believe this addiction to be a terrible human tragedy," he told Koop. "However, what we are about in our trade relationships is something entirely different."
Koop found Yeutter's letter unconvincing. "I'm a firm believer in the difference between a moral compromise and a political compromise," Koop said in a recent interview. "I suppose Yeutter can say he was just doing his job, but when you really are exporting death and disease to the Third World, that's a moral compromise that I would never make."
During congressional hearings on the trade issue in May 1990, the government's sole witness was Sandra Kristoff, then assistant trade representative for Asia and the Pacific, who had negotiated the agreements with South Korea and Taiwan and who vigorously defended USTR's role. She mocked the idea of taking into account health issues in trade policy matters, saying such considerations might result in banning trade in cholesterol-laden cookies "or hormones in red meat. . . . U.S. trade policy is not in the business of picking winners or losers in terms of products."
After the hearing, two lobbyists for Philip Morris wrote a memo to their boss praising her testimony. "The best witness we had was USTR Representative Sandy Kristoff . . .," they wrote. "She was tremendously effective." Kristoff, who now serves on the staff of the National Security Council, declined to be interviewed.
Eyeing New Markets
When anti-smoking activist Gregory Connolly toured Asia in 1988 he was astonished by how entrenched American cigarettes already had become. In Taipei he discovered 17 billboards advertising foreign cigarettes within sight of a local high school. In Bangkok he was shown student notebooks decorated with the Marlboro logo. In Manila he took photographs of jump boys huddling in an alley smoking Marlboros. Afterward, he protested to Filipino health activist Phyllis Tabla: "You've got to do something about this!"
Her reply: "Don't lecture us! It's not us! It's you!"
Philip Morris was so delighted with the success of the 301 cases that when Yeutter left USTR in 1989 to become secretary of agriculture in the Bush administration, the company threw a celebration in his honor at the Decatur Club here. When critics raised questions about the reception, Yeutter told the Senate Agriculture Committee: "It's unfortunate that when people try to say thank you, it becomes a potential conflict of interest issue, but that's the way the world is these days."
Looking back, Yeutter said he now feels the reception was a mistake. "Philip Morris shouldn't have done it," he said. "They were simply trying to be gracious. . . . It simply was not good judgment on their part. And in retrospect I probably should have done more to discourage it."
Today Yeutter practices international trade law from a corner office at Hogan & Hartson, Washington's largest law firm. He also sits on the board of British-American Tobacco (BAT), the British-based tobacco conglomerate that owns Brown & Williamson, the Louisville-based cigarette manufacturer that was one of the participants in the 301s. He insists he has not changed his mind about the dangers of smoking. But cigarettes remain a legal product, and, he says, BAT is an excellent, well-run company that he is proud to serve.
When Yeutter moved to Agriculture, incoming President Bush appointed Carla Hills, a highly regarded lawyer and former housing and urban development secretary, to succeed him at USTR. One canny political pro replaced another. And USTR set its sights on opening more cigarette markets in Asia.
Next on the agenda was Thailand.
Conditions there were similar to those in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan: a very promising market in a country undergoing explosive economic growth; a state-run monopoly; tight restrictions on imported cigarettes; an advertising ban purportedly based on health claims.
After their success in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, officials were highly optimistic about Thailand.
The Thai Finance Ministry already was holding discussions about opening its market.
Thailand, both U.S. officials and industry representatives agreed, would be easy.
Only they were wrong. As they were about to find out, in pressing on into Thailand, Washington and the industry had gone a country too far.
Research librarian Mary Lou White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company