WISMAR, EAST GERMANY
ON Wismar's cobbled Old Market Square, curious shoppers gather under a broad canvas canopy to get a closer look at three white-costumed cowgirls. ``Try America's most popular cigarette,'' exhorts one beaming cowgirl, her broad-rimmed hat cocked back from her forehead at a jaunty angle. Behind her, an imposing color poster showing a lean, rugged ``Marlboro man'' hangs amid stacks of red-and-white cigarette cartons. A group of ruddy Baltic Sea fishermen looks on in amused fascination.
At another stand nearby, a woman in her early 20s in a white T-shirt is handing out free samples of what she boasts is an ``American original.''
``It's the genuine taste of America,'' she says, tapping the bull's-eye emblem on the Lucky Strike package with her index finger.
Since German economic union in July, international tobacco companies have been locked in fierce competition for shares in the new and booming East German market.
Three Western cigarette companies have already carved up much of the new production market. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., Philip Morris Inc., and West Germany's largest producer, Reemtsma, recently agreed to split the East German cigarette manufacturing plants among them and to guarantee the jobs of the nation's 5,500 tobacco workers. Factory equipment is being modernized and production expanded. Similar deals are being made in the Soviet Union.
In contrast to trends in the United States and Western Europe, smoking rates in Eastern Europe have not yet been significantly affected by growing health concerns about tobacco. West Europeans smoke more than Americans, and East Europeans outsmoke their Western neighbors.
In East Germany, the marketing battle for smoker loyalty to new brands has begun in earnest. Industry officials say the stakes are high.