Tobacco Lures World's Teens
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 vacations 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 her hometown, Tirana, the capital of Albania, 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 by telephone, noting that a co-worker was also 17. As for her bosses, "they were just glad if you gave out all the cigarettes," she said.
Just as it is in the United States, giving cigarettes to teenagers is illegal in many countries, including Albania. But while the practice has all but disappeared in America, it goes on in many developing nations, and Philip Morris is not the only tobacco company that the World Health Organization has accused of enticing teenagers with free cigarettes.
"This is the right time for the tobacco industry to seduce children overseas," said Vera da Costa e Silva, director of the United Nations agency's tobacco program, which is documenting the distribution of cigarettes to smokers under age 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 cigarettes that British American Tobacco sells in the South Pacific. Health officials contend that the ingredients are added to lure teenagers who might otherwise dislike the acrid taste of cigarettes.
BAT denies the allegation, saying there is not enough of the additives to soften the harshness of smoking. But old internal documents from its American subsidiary, Brown Williamson, point out that "it is a well-known fact that teenagers like sweet products. Honey might be considered."
Local tobacco companies are sometimes more overt than the global cigarette makers, health officials say. Members of India's Parliament criticized Indian Tobacco Co. in 1997 for inviting teenagers to a debut party for one of its brands. Parliament members complained that the teens smoked, drank alcohol and posed in advertisements for the cigarettes.
A new study by WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention questioned students between 13 and 15 years old in 68 countries and found that roughly 11 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean had been offered free cigarettes in 1999 and 2000. In Russia, nearly 17 percent of the teenagers questioned said that they had been given free cigarettes. In Jordan, the figure was 25 percent.
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 bar handing out free cigarettes to anyone, much less to minors.
But while health officials and attorneys general give Philip Morris high marks for curtailing its marketing to American youths since a settlement of state lawsuits in 1998, they rarely say the same about its promotions overseas.
Outside the United States, the social and political taboo against underage smoking is usually far weaker. Nor is there an army of state officials, lawyers and anti-smoking advocates trying to keep tabs on nearly everything tobacco companies do.
Health officials in many countries contend that the way Philip Morris products are promoted overseas often places cigarettes directly in the hands of young people.
"As we start to squeeze them here in terms of not selling to children, they need replacement smokers," said Mohammed Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association. "They're finding these substitute smokers in the Third World."
Philip Morris has long recognized that distributing free cigarettes is a risky proposition. In 1995, well before the tobacco settlement limited the practice to nightclubs and other adult-only settings in the United States, Philip Morris stopped giving free samples to Americans, specifically because it was too hard to prevent children or young teenagers from getting them.
Even so, Philip Morris said, it has continued to hand out some samples abroad. Executives acknowledged that Geoffrey Bible, the company's 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 said, it has strict rules against giving tobacco to minors.
Still, company executives said, Philip Morris is a large enterprise, sprawling across dozens of countries. It exports more than 60 percent of the nearly 1.1 trillion cigarettes that it sells every year.
"I'm not telling you that our policy is 100 percent respected around the world," said Remi Calvert of Philip Morris's international division. "It should be, but we're not perfect."
Meanwhile, the Marlboro girls, dressed to raise eyebrows and plying crowds at concerts and trendy cafÃ©s, are familiar sights across the globe.
Teenagers may not be their intended audience. But youngsters are no strangers to the free samples.
"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 biggest in the country.
To his great delight, Hachimou said, girls only slightly older than he doled out packs of Bond Street, one of Philip Morris's overseas brands, 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.
" I would go again," he said. "I love smoking. I love cigarettes."