Don't Hold Your Breath for a Smoke-Free World

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Losing international markets would be catastrophic for the U.S. tobacco industry — luckily, for them, smoking hasn't yet lost its discreet charm in the developing world. The World Health Organization on Monday launched negotiations on a treaty to curb worldwide smoking and ban tobacco advertising, hoping to capitalize on the growing anti-smoking sentiment in the U.S. courts and political system. But curbing tobacco use in the developing world may require cultural as well as legal changes. "Despite accusations that the U.S. is dumping poisonous products on unsophisticated markets, a lot of people in the Third World actually like to smoke and American cigarettes are a prized status symbol," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "There's a lot of skepticism about anti-smoking efforts in the U.S."

Part of the problem may be demographic. Even though the WHO believes smoking currently kills 4 million people a year worldwide — and will kill 10 million a year by 2030 — its impact on developing countries may be different than it is in industrialized countries. "In the industrialized countries, people are living a lot longer today, and if you live into your eighties or nineties, the effects of tobacco become much more pronounced," says Dowell. "But life expectancy in the Third World is considerably lower, and they may therefore not notice the effects of smoking as compared with other factors that are hurting them." Banning cigarette advertising would in the long run strip tobacco of some of its social cachet in the developing world. But right now Big Tobacco may be more vulnerable to lawsuits that piggyback on the battle in the U.S. courts, which has forced the industry to take responsibility for knowingly distributing harmful products — although few countries have legal systems that allow the same opportunities for litigation. Which may mean it'll be some time before Third World ashtrays are empty.