Enticing Third World Youth; Big Tobacco Is Accused Of Crossing an Age Line

24 Aug 2001
Greg Winter
The New York Times

Sara Bogdani had just turned 17 last summer when she slipped into a short skirt and started working as a Marlboro girl.

While the rest of her high school friends spent their vacation laboring in restaurants or lounging at home, Sara donned a red hat, a T-shirt with a cowboy on the back and a knapsack full of Marlboros and other Philip Morris cigarettes.

Then she hit the streets of Tirana, the capital of Albania and her hometown, offering a smile and a free pack to anyone who professed a love of smoking and looked, well, almost as old as she was.

”As long as they weren’t 14 or something, it was O.K.,” Sara said in a telephone interview, noting that a co-worker was also 17. As for her bosses, ”they were just glad if you gave out all the cigarettes,” said Sara, who now works with an antismoking group.

Just as it is in the United States, giving cigarettes to teenagers is illegal in many countries, including Albania, where Marlboro girls stroll the streets. But while the practice has all but disappeared from American cities, it goes on with striking regularity in many developing nations, and Philip Morris is far from the only tobacco company that the World Health Organization has accused of crossing the line in trying to entice those underage with free cigarettes.

A new study of schoolchildren 13 to 15 in 68 countries, conducted by the W.H.O. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that about 11 percent of the children in Latin America and the Caribbean were offered free cigarettes by a tobacco company representative in 1999 and 2000. In Russia, nearly 17 percent said they had been given free cigarettes. In Jordan, it was 25 percent.

”Can you imagine if that happened here?” asked Armando Peruga, tobacco coordinator for the Pan American Health Organization, the Washington-based office of the W.H.O. ”There would be a big uproar.”

Others say this is part of an overall strategy on the part of the tobacco companies, one that is likely to become even more commonplace.

”This is the right time for the tobacco industry to seduce children overseas,” said Vera da Costa e Silva, director of the World Health Organization’s tobacco program, which has begun documenting the distribution of cigarettes to smokers under 18 by Philip Morris and its European competitors. ”They are looking to increase the number of smokers in developing countries and elsewhere abroad because in the United States they are losing their market.”

Sugar and honey can be found in some of the cigarettes that British American Tobacco sells in the South Pacific, for instance. Health officials contend that the ingredients are added to lure children who might otherwise shy away from the acrid taste of cigarettes. The company denies the accusation, saying that there is not enough of the additives to mollify the harshness of smoking. But internal documents from as long ago as the 1970’s from its American subsidiary, Brown & Williamson, point out that ”it is a well-known fact that teenagers like sweet products.

”Honey might be considered,” the documents added.

Local tobacco companies are sometimes even more overt than the global cigarette makers in reaching out to young people, health officials say. Members of India’s Parliament severely criticized the Indian Tobacco Company in 1997 for inviting children to a kick-off party for one of its brands. Parliament members complained that the teenagers smoked, drank alcohol and posed in advertisements for the cigarettes.

In its quest to recast the company’s image, the chief executive of Philip Morris, the only American tobacco company that directly sells and promotes its own cigarettes overseas, pledged three years ago to follow the same rules abroad that it does in the United States — which now includes not handing out free cigarettes to anyone, much less to minors.

But while health officials and attorneys general begrudgingly give Philip Morris high marks for curtailing marketing to American children since the 1998 settlement with the states, they rarely say the same about its promotions overseas.

Health officials in many countries contend that the way Philip Morris products are promoted overseas often places cigarettes directly in the hands of children from Eastern Europe to Africa and the Middle East. Cigarettes are still handed out freely and sometimes by young people who are no more than children themselves.

”As we start to squeeze them here in terms of not selling to children, they need replacement smokers,” argued Mohammad N. Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington. ”They’re finding these substitute smokers in the third world.”

Philip Morris has long recognized that passing out free cigarettes is a risky proposition. In 1995, well before the tobacco settlement limited the practice to nightclubs and other adult-only settings in this country, Philip Morris stopped giving out free samples to Americans, specifically because it was too hard to prevent children from receiving them.

Even so, Philip Morris said it had continued to hand out some samples abroad. Company executives acknowledged that Geoffrey C. Bible, its chief executive, told them in 1998 to eliminate the discrepancies between their marketing at home and abroad, hoping to dispel accusations that Philip Morris solicited teenage smokers. But they characterized his instructions as a ”vision” of what the company should do, not a proclamation of any formal new policy.

Where it does pass out free samples, Philip Morris stressed that it has strict rules against giving tobacco to minors, a self-imposed code that sometimes exceeds what foreign governments require.

Still, company executives added, Philip Morris is a large enterprise, sprawling across dozens of countries.

Executives at its international headquarters in Switzerland look over ideas for each marketing campaign, hoping to spot transgressions, but they are not capable of watching every move their employees make, they say. In some countries, Philip Morris promotes and distributes its cigarettes through independent companies, which are even harder to monitor.

”I’m not telling you that our policy is 100 percent respected around the world,” said Remi Calvert, a spokesman for Philip Morris’s international division. ”It should be, but we’re not perfect.”

Mr. Calvert said distributors that strayed from company policy were promptly fired, as in Albania.

”We’re trying to improve,” he said. ”We have a very, very clear policy. Perhaps not everyone is following it.”

Dressed to raise eyebrows, plying crowds at concerts and trendy cafes, the Marlboro girls span the globe.

Teenagers may not be the intended audience, but they are no strangers to the free samples, either.

”I got a pack,” said Hachimou Isaka, a 15-year-old in Niamey, Niger, where giving tobacco to minors is prohibited. Through a radio contest last April, Hachimou won tickets to a concert that Philip Morris sponsored in a 30,000-seat arena, the country’s biggest. To his great delight, Hachimou said women only slightly older than he was doled out packs of Bond Street, one Philip Morris overseas brand, along with hats and T-shirts, to thousands of fans.

”There were a lot of kids, so many that I couldn’t count,” Hachimou said, estimating that some were as young as 10. ”All the spectators got some cigarettes,” he said.

”We were really happy,” he said. ”We were clapping because we got free cigarettes. I would go again. I love smoking. I love cigarettes.”

The star of the concert, was Pierrette Adams, a Congolese singer beloved throughout West Africa. She is also the wife of Florentin Duarte, director of Philip Morris in Niger, who was at the concert in an unofficial capacity, watching with the rest of the crowd.

Philip Morris said that it only gave free cigarettes to spectators at the concert who traded in old packs of competing brands. It also said that it tried to keep minors out, and thought that its efforts were effective.

Philip Morris already exports more than 60 percent of the nearly 1.1 trillion cigarettes it sells yearly, and children in overseas markets have been of keen interest for the company in the past. A 1990 survey commissioned by the company, called the ”youth generation study,” examined Middle Eastern youth, from 13 to 25, tracking how much they smoked, what their favorite brands were and how much extra spending money they had. Similar studies were done in Europe and Asia.

With an international debate raging around cigarette advertising, and talks sponsored by the World Health Organization under way to develop a worldwide agreement on tobacco marketing, Philip Morris says that trying to appeal to children would be folly. The strategy could easily backfire, the company said, giving rise to regulations so stringent that simply doing business would be difficult.

Outside of the United States, however, the growing social and political taboo against underage smoking is usually far weaker. Nor is there an army of state officials, lawyers and antismoking advocates trying to keep tabs on nearly everything tobacco companies do.

Muna Hamzeh, the director of education in Jordan’s Ministry of Health, says she crossed paths with several Marlboro girls in November at a cafe in Amman, the capital. The girls littered the tabletops with free packs, Ms. Hamzeh said, and passed them out liberally to teenage boys, some as young as 16.

Jordanian law prohibits the distribution of cigarettes to people under age 18. One of the girls later admitted to being 17 herself, she said.

Afterward, Ms. Hamzeh conducted an informal survey of teenage boys. Several said they had accepted cigarettes from the Marlboro girls — for the most basic of reasons. ”They wanted to talk to the girls,” Ms. Hamzeh said.

Over 30 percent of Jordanian boys between 12 and 18 smoke, more than four times the rate in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. As in many developing nations, smoking is viewed more as an intractable part of life than as something for law enforcement to tackle. Ms. Hamzeh met with police and court officers to urge them to enforce the law in Jordan, but she doubts that much will change.

”You know,” Ms. Hamzeh said, ”nobody cares.”