'Smoking seriously damages health'

  • 2000-10-26
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - The global arena has witnessed an increase in dislike toward smoking, and there's practically a lawsuit inquisition going on against major tobacco producers in the United States.

Now the crusade has found its way to Latvia.

The Latvian Health Promotion Center has delivered an open letter to Latvia's largest tobacco manufacturer asking them to stop retailing tobacco products in Latvia and criticizing the company's advertising.

Aija Rituma, deputy director at the Latvian Health Promotion Center, said they chose only to deliver their letter to Philip Morris Latvia because they cover about 46 percent of the Latvian tobacco market.

Rituma said more and more women are smoking, and that Philip Morris is deliberately directing their advertising toward young women.

"I think tobacco companies are irresponsible," Rituma said. "The number of young smokers is increasing. Especially among school girls."

According to the Health Promotion Center's research, 53 percent of all men in Latvia and 18 percent of women smoke daily. Almost 9 percent of men and women smoke occasionally.

Smoking is also on the increase among some groups of teenagers in Latvia, according to government statistics.

Leikuma said Philip Morris Latvia is trying to keep their advertising away from children as much as possible.

"We don't produce pens with our logo or T-shirts in small sizes, and we don't advertise close to schools," said Philip Morris Latvian spokeswoman Ineta Leikuma. "Still, it's impossible to keep cigarettes away from people. It's human curiosity."

An executive from the second largest cigarette manufacturer, the Danish firm House of Prince, said that if his company had received the letter he wouldn't have taken it seriously.

"We are not crooks. We are not distributing narcotics," Camans said. "Until selling cigarettes is an illegal activity, such a letter is, excuse me, bulls**t."

Together the two firms control about 80 percent of the cigarette market.

Camans offered another theory saying meat is bad for the stomach but nobody is confronting meat producers with demands for stopping meat production. "If one smokes one to two cigarettes per day, it's not so dangerous, but if one smokes 10 packs a day one would probably die sooner," Camans said.

Leikuma said it will be impossible to get Philip Morris Latvia to stop selling cigarettes in the country since it is legal, "and it has been a legal product for many years."

The only thing both sides can agree on is the need to control contraband cigarettes, which are leaking into Latvia at an alarming rate.

"I haven't seen any action from the state to fight contraband cigarettes," Camans said. "We are not getting any support from the Ministry of Welfare."

House of Prince Riga produces 26 different kinds of cigarettes for the local market but the company also exports to the other Baltic countries and Belarus. Philip Morris Latvia has 14 different trademarks in Latvia. One of their best selling brands is L&M. One brand labeled as a Philip Morris brand in Latvia is Parliament cigarettes. However, Leikuma said these are smuggled into the country.

"We do not have any import whatsoever on this brand," Leikuma said.

Camans argues about 20 percent to 25 percent of all cigarettes sold here are contraband.

"The government loses $10 million every year on smuggled cigarettes," Camans said. "This money could be spent on increasing teachers' salaries for instance."

Leikuma said people rip the excise tax stamp off cigarette packs and trade them to illegal producers for smokes.

"Latvia, Hungary and Georgia are the only countries in the world with a hologram on the excise tax stamps," Leikuma said.

Camans said smuggled cigarettes are much more dangerous because there's no saying what's in them.

"One doesn't know what kind of tobacco has been used, how much nicotine is in them and the level of tar," Camans said.

On that point alone, Rituma agrees.

"We went and listened to the [tobacco companies], listened to their plans and strategies," Rituma said. "The only point we can work together on is smuggled cigarettes."