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Sounding the global smoke alarm

WHOEVER wrote that camp movie, ``Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,'' must have thought he had invented the ultimate in vegetable horror stories. What would he and his audiences make of a real-life farm crop that has been implicated in killing more people worldwide than the wars of the 20th century?

That is responsible for the cutting of large areas of forest in South America, Africa, and Asia.

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That consumes as much as one-fifth of personal income in some third-world countries.

That has spawned a strange trade war which turns politicians in many countries into lobbyists for this lethal vegetable - third-world Jesse Helmses.

The vegetable is, of course, tobacco.

In several major nations of the wealthy, developed world, tobacco's hold on addicts is slipping. But in the third world smoking is sharply on the increase. More worrisome: Tobacco has become an important income and tax-revenue prop for more than a dozen Asian, African, and Latin American nations. This has led to trade competition, which tends to push even more of the substance onto the global market. And third-world tobacco is classed as more toxic than American varieties.

The number of smokers in the United States shrank by 17 million in the two decades after the US surgeon general's report opened the era of public warnings. From 1972 to 1984 Britain's smokers dwindled from 46 percent to 34 percent of the population. Puffing has started to decline also in the Scandinavian countries, Japan, France, and West Germany.

In contrast, smoking is estimated by the World Bank to be growing by 4 percent in third-world countries. In 1984, Brazilians were added to the smoker totals at eight times the pace in Western nations, Pakistanis at six times.

Addiction to production grew alongside addiction to consumption. Brazil, the Philippines, Pakistan, Malawi, Paraguay, Tunisia, Yemen, Zimbabwe, and Zambia borrowed heavily to expand output. The reason was made clear in a 1982 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report. It indicated, for instance, that Zimbabwe's tobacco industry was the nation's largest employer, and that, in India's Andhra Pradesh state, 75,000 farmers and 2 milliion other workers were engaged in growing and processing the leaf. In Brazil, British investigator Peter Taylor notes, the province where 70 percent of the crop is grown was once heavily forested but has had 1.5 million acres per year cut to produce fuel for leaf curing.

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In Taiwan last year, the government's 99-percent monopoly of the local cigarette market was abetted, ironically, by pickets protesting the health menace of American brands. The protesters claimed a resemblance to British opium sales in 19th century China.

Despite hypocrisy in Taipei, the shoe fits Washington. As part of its campaign to shrink the American trade deficit and open protected markets, the US is pushing its tobacco exports. But the shoe also fits the Taiwanese and other governments that sell tobacco to their own people. A visitor from another planet might wonder how so many enlightened leaders in so many societies can support such a negative crop. Much of the answer lies in the profit - to farmers, processors, packagers, exporters, advertising, periodicals, tax collectors, and politicians sensitive to unemployment.

What can be done to put third-world nations at least on the same downward curve as Western nations?

Answers are not simple. But as a start, the next session of the US Congress could reverse a July Senate vote. That body rejected an amendment to its trade bill which would have dropped a $200 million program to promote the American tobacco crop abroad. That's small change compared to some $2 billion spent annually by the global tobacco industry to promote smoking. But it would show a change in official American intent. That, in turn, could help justify a new goal in world trade negotiation. The Western nations that are publicly warning their citizens not to smoke ought to be arguing against unrestrained exports of tobacco products worldwide. Otherwise, cheap exports in the long run will likely increase the number of addicts.

Beyond that, the single biggest factor in internal reform remains the spread of antismoking education and the push to find profitable substitute crops for farmers. Both have proven difficult in the face of lobbying. Neither is impossible.

Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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