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The taste of freedom

After the fall of communism over a decade ago, the big western tobacco companies moved into Eastern Europe to carve out new markets for their brands. In Hungary, their sponsorship money is finding a welcome.
Kent cigarettes - one of Hungary's most popular brands

Ask a local person for directions to the theatre in the beautiful medieval town of Pecs in south eastern Hungary and the reply could go something like this:

'Walk past the British American Tobacco homeless Hostel until you get to the BAT Media Centre at the university. Continue. At the BAT Health Centre, take a left and the BAT town theatre should be right in front.'

Sponsorship outside Pecs theatre

Cigarette manufacturing conglomerate British American Tobacco (BAT) is much more than just another employer in this ancient town.

Its presence is everywhere, even in the air. The smell of raw tobacco wafts around the town.

The British owned company is typical of western firms who moved into Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism over a decade ago, looking for new markets. They were welcomed with open arms by countries desperate for investment and western technical know how.


Looking to open up new markets, the tobacco companies put up advertising boards calling on consumers to "taste the freedom" or "test the west".

Smoking although common in Eastern Europe was rarely associated with glamour.

"'The taste of freedom' is a standard billboard all over eastern Europe and its in red, white and blue... they literally use the colours of the American flag; they use all the images of our patriotism," says Mark Palmer, former US Ambassador to Hungary.

"It's criminal what they are doing. They have stolen America."

Listen to Mr. Palmer
Mark Palmer - a critic of the tobacco companies


As the years have gone by and consumers have become more discerning, tobacco firms have developed more sophisticated methods to build their brands and establish a hold on the market.

Corporate sponsorship is growing and in Hungary, tobacco money flows into schools, media centres, student scholarship programmes, the Red Cross, and police and fire brigades.

According to a recent report by the British newspaper The Guardian, some people have started to make a distinction between donations and sponsorship.

The report says Maria Torocsik, vice-rector for marketing at the university in Pecs, has been negotiating the terms of BAT's sponsorship of a media centre.

BAT would like the university to amend its no-smoking policy in order to create "a cultured atmosphere" for those who smoke. Torocsik disagrees. She says, "I would like to insist that smoking should stay out of the building."

...if the cash strapped state should decide to crack down on smoking it may find it cannot afford to lose so much funding from the manufacturers.


Now critics say the process has gone too far.
In Hungary, companies like BAT are investing millions of dollars in supporting essential services. As part of their marketing strategies, some companies are sponsoring clinics and anti-smoking campaigns in schools.

The anti smoking lobby worries that if the cash strapped state should decide to crack down on smoking it may find it cannot afford to lose so much funding from the manufacturers.


According to a survey compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO), per capita consumption in Hungary in the early 1990s averaged around 3,260 cigarettes per year. The survey also states that in 1990, 19.4% of smokers consumed over 25 cigarettes a day.

There are real fears that Hungary, where over 40% of all adults smoke cigarettes, is being crippled by the effects of tobacco.

Some 36,000 people die every year from smoking related illnesses - nearly one person every fifteen minutes.

The government is having difficulty funding a health service which is burdened with a 150% increase in lung cancer cases among men and a 200% increase for women.

The WHO warns that by 2020 at least 22% of all deaths in the former communist states will be attributable to tobacco. It constitutes a 5% rise since 1995.


Cigarette ads fill magazines
In January 2001, the Hungarian parliament passed a law to ban all tobacco advertising in printed materials and other media.

The legislation follows a recent EU directive which requires a ban on all tobacco advertising by its members.

Hungary hopes to become an EU member by 2003.

The government also acted in 1999 by introducing a new law which banned smoking in public places, such as schools, hospitals and train stations.

Legislation in 1993 further ensures tobacco can only be sold in retail shops, making street selling illegal. Health warnings must also be printed on the packages.


In February 2002, Poland hosted the "European Ministerial Conference for a Tobacco-free Europe", a major conference which brought together politicians and representatives from countries that have signed the Warsaw Declaration.

They produced the Warsaw Declaration for a Tobacco-free Europe, which describes tobacco as an "epidemic".

The report commits the signatories to develop and adopt an European strategy for tobacco control. Its main objectives are: to implement bans on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion; to propose higher taxes to combat the use of tobacco; to protect against involuntary exposure to smoke, and to establish strict controls on smuggling.

A follow-up conference, titled "Tobacco or Health. Closing the Gaps - Solidarity for Health" is planned for June 2002 in Warsaw, Poland.