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OCTOBER 9, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 14

Taking on Tobacco
Asia starts kicking some butts

ALSO
Up in Smoke: On the eve of a big international conference, the country's anti-cigarette activists try to rally against the tobacco lobby

  ALSO IN TIME
COVER: When Things Go Wrong
The horrific tale of one woman's disfigurement and abortive quest for justice highlights how official misconduct continues to plague society at every level
Don't Go There: The fight against corruption has its limits
Muckraker: The journalist who broke Wu Fang's story

SPECIAL SITE
TIME at the Olympics: Sydney 2000
TIMEasia, TIMEeurope, TIMEpacific and TIME.com bring you our take on the first Olympics of the new millennium

SUMMER OLYMPICS: Notebook
Highs and lows from the Sydney Games

INDONESIA: Doctor's Excuse
Suharto is ruled medically unfit for trial, raising the possibility that he may never be held responsible for alleged misdeeds

JAPAN: Up in Smoke
On the eve of a big international conference, the country's anti-cigarette activists try to rally against the tobacco lobby
Taking on Tobacco: Asia starts kicking some butts

JAPAN: Where Harpoons Fly
Whale hunting may stir global outrage, but to this proud Japanese village, it's a venerable way of life

TRAVEL WATCH: Driving Yourself Around the Bend in Bali

When Thailand's anti-tobacco activists launched their first campaign to get citizens to kick the habit, they targeted the temples. Buddhism forbids clergy from using intoxicants, but monks had never considered nicotine a drug. They were community leaders, however—if they could be persuaded to quit, the activists figured, others might follow. Not all gave up their smokes—one prominent monk kept puffing until he suffered a massive heart attack last year. But attitudes are clearly starting to change. These days when local cable channels air The Sopranos, a U.S. TV drama about a New Jersey Mafia family, censors don't block any of the violence or foul language. But every time the characters light up, a mosaic of fuzzy squares blocks their faces—and the offending cigarettes—from view.

Although the Japanese are still puffing away madly, the rest of Asia is starting to respond to mounting public concern over the dangers of smoking. Taiwan plans to add more muscle to a 1997 tobacco-control law that includes mandatory health warnings on tobacco products. Malaysia is considering an outright ban on tobacco advertising. From Mongolia to Hong Kong, laws are getting tougher. The view that Asia is the last great open market for Big Tobacco is no longer quite accurate. Singapore and Thailand have some of the toughest smoking-control laws in the world. Even in China, the world's biggest cigarette producer and home to 500 million smokers, the gray pall is starting to clear a little. "There has been a sea change in Asia," says Judith Mackay, senior policy adviser to the World Health Organization. "The message is that developing countries can tackle this epidemic as well as, if not better than, the West."

The grassroots push has been most impressive in Thailand. In the late 1980s, Philip Morris and other big U.S. tobacco companies tried to pry open the country's then-closed domestic market, enlisting Washington to threaten sanctions. Local activists quickly banded together with American and other anti-tobacco groups to fight back. In the end, Thailand did open its market but also drafted its tough anti-smoking code to head off an expected blitz of high-powered, American-style advertising. Resistance to foreign cigarettes helped to spur similar movements in Taiwan, Mongolia and many other parts of the region. At the same time, governments have started to wake up to the enormous health costs of tobacco.

There are still some Asian laggards. The Philippines doesn't even bar minors from smoking. Manila does ban smoking in public, but President Joseph Estrada regularly violates the rule. In Indonesia, smoking jumped 44% between 1990 and 1997, according to the World Bank. The reason? Lack of government will and powerful cigarette lobbies, both domestic and foreign.

It would be premature to count Big Tobacco out. American companies increasingly target Asian women, who smoke in much smaller numbers than men. Underage smoking is still on the rise in many Asian countries. But the tide may be turning. Smoking rates are actually falling in some countries, mostly among adult males. Whether guided by monks or not, more and more Asians are heading for the healthier path.

D.M., with reporting by Robert Horn/Bangkok, Wendy Kan/Hong Kong, Ramakrishnan Mageswary/Malaysia, Cybil Chou/Taipei, Nelly Sindayen/Manila and Jason Tedjasukmana/Jakarta

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