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NEW YORK -- As tobacco company sales in developing nations become more important to their bottom lines, the cigarette makers are stepping up efforts to fight tough restrictions on the marketing of cigarettes.
Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco are fighting limits on ads in Great Britain, bigger health warnings in South America and higher cigarette taxes in the Philippines and Mexico, according to a report by The New York Times. The companies are spending billions on lobbying and marketing campaigns in Africa and Asia, plus providing undisclosed financing for TV commercials in Australia.
The tobacco industry has strengthened its efforts in advance of a meeting of public health officials from 171 countries in Uruguay. The group plans to shape guidelines to enforce a global anti-smoking treaty, the newspaper reported.
This year, Philip Morris International sued the government of Uruguay, saying its tobacco regulations were excessive. Uruguay's law mandates health warnings cover 80 percent of cigarette packages. It also limits each brand to one package design so that alternate designs don't mislead smokers into believing the products inside are less harmful. The lawsuit against Uruguay, filed at a World Bank affiliate in Washington, seeks unspecified damages for lost profits.
"They're using litigation to threaten low- and middle-income countries," Dr. Douglas Bettcher, head of the W.H.O.'s Tobacco Free Initiative, told the newspaper. Uruguay's gross domestic product is half the size of the company's $66 billion in annual sales.
Peter Nixon, a vice president and spokesman for Philip Morris International, told the New York Times the company was complying with every nation's marketing laws while selling a lawful product for adult consumers. The company's lawsuits were intended to combat what it felt were "excessive" regulations, he said, and to protect its trademark and commercial property rights.
Cigarette companies are aggressively recruiting new customers in developing nations, Bettcher said, as smoking rates in the United States and Europe have fallen precipitously. Worldwide cigarette sales are rising 2 percent a year.
Philip Morris USA helped negotiate and supported the anti-smoking legislation passed by Congress last year and did not join a lawsuit filed by R. J. Reynolds, Lorillard and other tobacco companies against the Food and Drug Administration the newspaper noted. The firm is not protesting the agency's new rules, proposed last week, requiring graphic images with health warnings on cigarette packs.
But Philip Morris International has also sued Brazil, arguing that images the government wants to put on cigarette packages do not accurately depict the health effects of smoking. The pictures depict more grotesque health effects than the smaller labels recommended in the United States, including one showing a fetus with the warning that smoking can cause spontaneous abortion, the newspaper reported.
In Ireland and Norway, Philip Morris subsidiaries are suing over prohibitions on store displays.
In Indonesia, the fifth-largest cigarette market, there is little tobacco regulation and companies market their products in ways that are prohibited elsewhere. Cigarette ads run on TV and before movies; billboards dot the highways; companies appeal to children through concerts and sports events; cartoon characters adorn packages; and stores sell to children, according to The New York Times.
Officials in Indonesia say they depend on tobacco jobs, as well as revenue from excise taxes on cigarettes. Indonesia gets some $2.5 billion a year from Philip Morris International alone, the newspaper reported.
"In the U.S., they took down billboards, agreed not to sponsor music events, no longer use the Marlboro cowboy," Matthew L. Myers, president of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, told The New York Times. "They now do all of those things overseas."
The Uruguay conference will try to add specific terms to a public health treaty known as the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which since 2003 has been ratified by 171 nations. It would eventually oblige its parties to impose tighter controls on tobacco ingredients, packaging and marketing, expand cessation programs and smoke-free spaces and raise taxes. President George W. Bush signed the treaty in 2004 but did not send it to the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is needed for ratification. President Obama hopes to submit it to the Senate next year, according to a White House spokesman.
One recommendation drawing fire from tobacco farmers would either restrict or prohibit the use of popular additives, like licorice and chocolate, to blended tobacco products that account for more than half of worldwide sales. The International Tobacco Growers' Association says that could threaten the makers of burley tobacco, an air-cured leaf that has long been sweetened with additives, costing millions of farmers their jobs and devastating economies worldwide.