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The overall number of smokers in developed Western countries is falling by 3 percent a year, but the global market is increasing.

The estimate for tobacco consumption this year - up 10 percent from last year - is 5 trillion cigarettes, or the equivalent of every adult and child on Earth smoking about 900 cigarettes.In the developed world, the tobacco companies may be on the defensive, but consumption is booming in the Third World and Eastern Europe. The international tobacco companies, fearful of declining profits in the West, are turning toward these new markets.

Controls over nicotine content, tar, health warnings and advertising are a lot less stringent.

China has laws against advertising, but billboards everywhere advertise Marlboro cigarettes. In Taiwan, a leading brand is called "Long Life." China manufactures a cigarette aimed at women, Sanchi, which a spokesman said "offers very good treatment for people's health."

This has even given the Western tobacco giants a noble motive for wanting to sell their products. Their cigarettes, they argue, are healthier than their Asian counterparts. With Western cigarettes, Chinese people can live longer before the cigarettes kill them. After all, Chairman Mao used to smoke 40 State Express 555s a day, and he lived to a ripe old age.

There are 300 million smokers in China, puffing away on about 1.7 billion cigarettes a year, not too many of which can "give good treatment for people's health" since about 3 million of them die every year from smoking-related diseases.

The statistic that really excites the tobacco giants is that foreign brands have only 2 percent of this colossal market. The potential is enormous.

Lady Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister and determined non-smoker who works for cigarette giant Philip Morris, has been the prophet of profit, visiting Asia and exhorting leaders to relax restrictions and allow her employers in.

Smoking is socially acceptable in Eastern Europe. Consumption is estimated at 700 billion cigarettes a year, against 500 billion in America and 600 billion in Western Europe.

Cigarette companies have tumbled into the region, tempted by the prospect of cheap production centers close to the European Community.