If you find it hard to stop smoking, just think of British American Tobacco's enormous profits

The Margaret Cook reminiscences are not the only noxious substance to pollute the Foreign Office air. In the wake of the £13 billion merger between British American Tobacco and Rothmans International, the Independent reported that the FO is doing its bit to boost cigarette sales to the third world.

Despite front-page prominence, this story is almost as stale as old ashtrays. In December, the Department of Health white paper on smoking registered a boom in UK exports and noted: "We are not in the business of banning the production or export of tobacco products." Thus, embassies and high commissions would continue to proffer support and advice to companies. The only significant change, under guidelines that are now being devised by Foreign Office ethicists, will be an instruction to diplomatic staff that they should sidestep advertising or promotion.

Since the sales and marketing arms of tobacco multinationals do not usually invite third secretaries to distribute free smokes at sponsored Tunisian camel derbies, this amounts to no discernible alteration. Whatever the guidelines say, the reality is that cigarette manufacturers will get the blessing and help of a government anxious to protect exports.

On the face of it, the guidance revision is merely another offering from the Ministry of Footling Changes - an amendment of the same ilk as this week's childcare kitemarks, bestowed on agencies whose quest for excellence runs to bothering to interview the nannies they supply. But the smoking issue is more disturbing. The merger of the two tobacco giants - welcomed by the City, for whom cash naturally trumps ethics - created a global corporation set to produce 900 billion cigarettes a year and flood them into the developing world as the western market shrinks.

Back home, Frank Dobson is spending £100 million on smoking prevention, as outlined in a white paper thin enough, in parts, to be mistaken for a Rizla paper. What use, for instance, is a smoke level rating on the window of a restaurant whose clientele might switch between the human variant of laboratory beagles and the Batley Temperance Guild? Other sections reeked of sharpish practice: an advertising ban exemption for Formula One racing until 2006 (as agreed with B Ecclestone) and a week's free nicotine patches for the poor (as supplied by a company with a history of government sponsorship).

Tentative as he was, Dobson's target is to cut the number of smokers by 1.5 million in the next decade. That means 750,000 fewer cigarette-induced deaths; a toll destined to be passed directly on to the developing world. For a government in thrall to big business it is no easier to stamp on a boom industry than it is to decline to bomb Khartoum or Iraq at Clinton's behest. Ethics, as bolted on to foreign policy, are almost always deemed impolitic or unaffordable or both. Even so, there is something particularly vile about the sanctimony directed at British addicts and the sanguinity over developing a virgin market of Chinese children, of whom 60 per cent regard smoking as no more linked to lung cancer than to ingrowing toenails.

The only salvation for such potential victims lies in the government's likely shortfall on its domestic targets - the result of an over-squeamish strategy far short of a Californian- or Canadian-style veto. There, cigarettes are allowed only in bars, from which minors under 19 are banished. If, like me, you are in possession of a smoking habit and two adolescent children, it is possible, verging on obligatory, to get through a week's holiday, nicotine-free and high on virtue and nanny statism.

Being forced to stop smoking may not be the libertarian's dream. It is, however, better than being forced to start. Behind this week's marvelling over the City's new glamour-tobacco stock stand strings of backstreet discos, from Tunisia to the Ivory Coast, offering free cigarettes to teenagers. And behind them are the helping hands of the Foreign Office; unstained, in its account, by any taint of nicotine.

I think I might finally be revolted enough to quit. There is no easy way, but I have reserved a photo of Johann Rupert, whose family holds a 35 per cent stake in BAT. Pictured post-merger with a lungful of smoke and a wallet full of cash, Rupert offers an image useful to even the most dedicated smoker. Visual Nicorette.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?