Big Tobacco Bounces Back

Philip Morris et al. are recasting themselves as kinder, gentler companies concerned about their communities. Meanwhile, they’re strong-arming the TV networks to block counter-ads which might persuade you otherwise.


Think Big Tobacco has been whupped?

Think again.

Sure, the industry has taken some serious blows in the last few years — a stream of horrendous publicity, a barrage of lawsuits, major settlements that have inflated the price of cigarettes in the United States. And the industry faces major challenges: more suits, including a massive class action by tobacco victims in Florida and a medical-cost recovery suit by the federal government, a newly aggressive World Health Organization, the near-certainty of new blockbuster revelations as researchers comb through millions of industry documents made public as a result of prior suits, well-funded tobacco control campaigns in some states, and much more.

But Philip Morris and company aren’t throwing in the towel. In fact, they are beginning to emerge from their defensive posture of recent years.

Whether Big Tobacco succeeds will depend in significant part on whether anti-tobacco groups and their many new allies of various stripes refuse to succumb to Big Tobacco’s combined intimidation and charm offensive.

Philip Morris has just announced “a new long-term effort” to “open a dialogue with the American people about issues that impact our business,” in the words of Ellen Merlo, senior vice president of corporate affairs for Philip Morris USA. The dialogue is to feature of series of newspaper advertisements explaining how reasonable the company is when it comes to advertising and marketing practices, consideration of the rights of non-smokers and other controversial matters.

This new dialogue complements the company’s high-profile television advertising campaign on the people of Philip Morris and the company’s charitable contributions to hurricane relief, anti-hunger and other benificent causes.

All of this is a transparent effort at image enhancement. But why should the industry care about its broader image?

Three reasons:

  1. Big Tobacco knows it is going to be facing an endless series of juries in coming years. The companies don’t know who will sit on the juries, so any effort to influence the jury prior to trial requires them to influence the entire jury pool — and that is the entire adult population of the United States. If people look more kindly on the companies as responsible members of the community, the tobacco pushers hope, they will be less prone to hand out big punitive verdicts.

  2. The industry is worried about national and state legislation that would meaningfully affect its operations — through higher taxes, penalties for failing to reduce youth smoking rates or stringent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. If the tobacco companies can make a plausible case that they are regulating themselves, then they are better positioned to resist new legislation.

  3. Finally, and probably most important, Big Tobacco knows that demonization of the industry — clever and hard-hitting illustrations of how the tobacco companies manipulate, deceive and disregard human life in pursuit of the almighty dollar — is the most effective anti-smoking message. It is harder for that message to stick if the industry can portray itself as a restrained and caring member of the community.

Fear of vilification explains the industry’s all-out effort to block the airing of two new television advertisements from the American Legacy Foundation (ALF), a national anti-tobacco organization created by money from the tobacco companies’ settlement with the states.

One of the ads, modeled on successful commercials in Florida, showed kids piling up body bags outside of a tobacco company’s building. The other showed lie-detector-equipped teens trying to ask questions of tobacco executives.

CBS refused to air the ads, with a CBS spokesperson saying “they crossed the line.” This shameful refusal to air the ads, notes Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project at Northeastern University, contrasts sharply with the networks’ willingness to air Big Tobacco’s ads.

Unfortunately, in the face of network resistance and the tobacco companies’ shrill claims that the ads violated the terms of their settlement with the states, the American Legacy Foundation capitulated. Led by board chair and Washington State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, ALF decided to pull the ads.

That’s a very disturbing precedent, which suggests Philip Morris and friends may succeed in fighting their way off the ropes, even in the US market. (Philip Morris’s charm offensive is also underway overseas, where the huge sums of money it can throw at pseudo-tobacco control efforts pose a serious threat to genuine anti-smoking efforts.)

By virtue of its enormous funding ($200 million a year), ALF’s surrender will cast a shadow over all tobacco control efforts in the United States. That’s why it is especially critical the Foundation abandon its docile stand, and instead heed the advice of Julia Carol, executive director of Americans for Nonsmoker Rights.

When you take on a sophisticated and ruthless multinational industry, she says, you have to be prepared to withstand strong-arm tactics. “In those places where agencies stand up to bullying tactics, the tobacco industry backs down,” she notes in a letter to Gregoire. “In those that do not, the resulting campaigns have been weakened by self-censorship and are rendered ineffectual.”

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of “Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy.”