Ah, economic development ... what's not to love? While one generation toils in fields, barely eking out a living, the next generation manages to send its kids to school, and the following generation owns its own homes, complete with televisions and garages.

Here's one more thing that seems to come with economic development: smoking. According to The Wall Street Journal, big tobacco companies are aiming squarely at developing countries, where populations are increasing and smoking is a status symbol. The Journal states that companies are "developing and promoting new products, such as shorter cigarettes, to attract new customers and to adapt to tobacco restrictions that are already in place."

Check out the numbers of cigarettes that Philip Morris, a division of Altria (NYSE: MO), sold in 2006:

  • U.S./Canada: 184 billion
  • Asia Pacific: 197 billion
  • Eastern Europe: 229 billion
  • Western Europe: 242 billion

The breakdowns are similar for British American Tobacco (NYSE: BTI) and Japan Tobacco as well.

If you've been thinking fewer Americans are smoking these days, it's not your imagination. At the freakonomics blog, Stephen Dubner notes, "The decline in U.S. smoking rates is pretty remarkable, both in terms of total percentages (42.4% of Americans smoked in 1965, versus 20.8% in 2006) and the number of cigarettes smoked by people who do smoke (from 19.8 per day in 1974 to 13.9 in 2006)." He asks, "Do you think prices, especially taxes, have had anything to do with that?"

Most tobacco companies, including Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI), Carolina Group (NYSE: CG), and Vector Group (NYSE: VGR), have done well in the bull market. If investors have worried about the health and future of tobacco companies, given our shrinking taste for tobacco here at home, a glance at global numbers may be reassuring.

Still, threats exist. For example, consider New York City mayor (and billionaire) Michael Bloomberg. He has funded, with $2 million, a World Health Organization report on how to curb smoking around the world. Recommendations include "raising cigarette taxes, banning smoking in public places, enforcing laws against giving or advertising tobacco to children, monitoring tobacco use, warning people about the dangers and offering free or inexpensive help to smokers trying to quit." Tobacco investors might want to keep tabs on global smoking trends.

Learn more in this Chuck Saletta article: It's Like Stealing Money Legally.