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Peddling Dangerous Dreams


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Health hazard / NICOTINE

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The Bulgaria File

Peddling dangerous dreams

Albena Arnaudova on the ruthless
search for new smokers.

‘I choose where to go’ is the last thing a Bulgarian teenager can claim. In the painful period of transition from a state-planned to a free-market economy, the quality of life for most Bulgarians has so deteriorated that 70 per cent of the population exists on or under the poverty line. Yet this past summer thousands of young Bulgarians were hooked by Lucky Strike’s ‘I Choose Where To Go’ web site and a competition whose final winners were promised trips to London and Tibet. A huge number of hits and a record number of registrations made this campaign an immense advertising success story. It also tells us volumes about the tobacco industry’s approach to the lucrative markets in Eastern Europe.

At the beginning of the 1990s democracy was perceived as a quick jump into a dream society – a land where everyone could have as much as they wanted. But today Bulgarians are as far away from this Western-consumer dreamland as ever. Yet an answer is popping out of magazines, newspapers, billboards, TV and radio, and it’s a simple one: while it is true you cannot travel freely Westwards, you can go to the land of Marlboro. It is a ready substitute for all those places you want to visit, but can’t.

The Western cigarette is one of the few easily accessible Western consumer goodies for Eastern Europeans. Who says it’s tobacco? No, it’s ‘freedom of choice’ we’re talking about. By smoking a Western cigarette you’re clutching at a tiny piece of that dreamed-of Western lifestyle. And young Bulgarians, sensitive about their choices and freedoms, make the ideal target group. They are excellent consumer ‘raw material’ to be turned into the expanding market of future lifelong smokers from Central and Eastern Europe. The global tobacco industry badly needs these new converts to make up for the regulatory pressure and stagnant or declining rates of smoking in the West. The young people who today voluntarily provide their own consumer profiles when they register on the Lucky Strike web site will probably not be able to quit smoking, even when they learn that freedom is something other than a visit to the fantastic teenage music clubs of Sofia where Pall Mall pays for their drinks and the band.

This is a new development of an old drama for Bulgaria. Our rates of smoking, at 56 per cent for men and 32 per cent for women, are some of Europe’s highest. Some six per cent of smokers are under 12 and 28 per cent are 13 to 15 year-olds. With some 1.5 million dollars in ‘advertising spend’ tobacco companies are the second-largest advertisers in the country. And despite a bunch of pompous documents called the ‘National Anti-smoking Programme’ actual government anti-smoking health promotion is minimal – only three anti-smoking clinics handle just four hundred clients a year. As elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Bulgarian State depends on the jobs, investment and taxes from a booming tobacco industry to help cover the wrenching costs of transition to a market economy.

The Eastward expansion of the big players in global tobacco – replacing the old public industries – is all too clear. Phillip Morris now controls 80 per cent of the Czech and 50 per cent of the Slovakian cigarette markets. They recently purchased a factory near St Petersburg and plan to produce 25 billion cigarettes a year there. British American Tobacco now operates factories in Hungary, the Ukraine, Russia and Poland. This October at World Health Organization hearings on tobacco in Geneva the boss of a leading Russian advertising agency made the astonishing claim that putting minimal health warnings on cigarette packs and banning sales close to schools was all the Government should do, as anything else would mean an unwarranted restriction on the operation of the free market.

Albena Arnaudova
Albena Arnaudova is a Bulgarian journalist specializing in health issues.
[email protected]
Albena Arnaudova
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New Internationalist issue 331 magazine cover This article is from the January-February 2001 issue of New Internationalist.
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