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Curbing Tobacco Globally

A historic "global settlement" between state attorneys general and the tobacco industry needs the approval of Congress and the White House to take effect. The hurdles are plenty. To begin with, the term "global settlement" is a misnomer. Under the agreement, tobacco companies will pay states' costs of treating smokers and will accept restrictions on advertising and marketing in the US, in exchange for restricted liability in future lawsuits. So where's the global aspect?

That's a good question, and antismoking advocates around the world understandably want an answer. In a joint letter last week they requested that any settlement take other countries into consideration. They were concerned, with good reason, that the talks would leave tobacco companies free to act as they wish in other nations.

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The industry already has made its move on developing countries, where smoking rates have skyrocketed. A recent Monitor story noted that US tobacco companies have plastered Vietnam and Cambodia with billboards. And the big three multinationals - Philip Morris Inc., R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and British-American Tobacco Co. - are the biggest investors in the former Soviet Union. Last fall, they launched a huge promotional campaign in Argentina, apparently targeting young people.

They are, in essence, getting kids all over the world to become nicotine addicts to help pay for the $368 billion pool to compensate for health damages to millions of Americans.

A World Health Organization study last year said the globe is in the midst of a "tobacco epidemic," with an estimated 1.1 billion smokers. That number likely will grow, especially if, as expected, the tobacco companies intensify their marketing efforts in the third world and Eastern Europe.

What antismoking campaigners in other countries are asking for is more than reasonable. They say a final settlement should apply controls to cigarettes made in the US, including those for export. They also maintain that the agreement should include a global code of conduct (or international protocol, as the World Health Organization calls it) on issues such as advertising aimed at children.

Critics' more immediate worries are that the agreement limits federal regulatory authority and makes it too difficult for smokers and other victims of smoking-related health problems to prevail in court. But those legitimate concerns don't make the "global aspect" of the "global settlement" less important. Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon said he would filibuster a deal that doesn't take up the international aspect of smoking. He probably wonders, as we do, how tobacco companies can admit, as part of a US settlement, that smoking can kill and that targeting kids is wrong, and then turn around and lure young people elsewhere in the world.

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