USA: Big Tobacco Off the Ropes?

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Focus on the Corporation

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 lifted 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 prior suits,
well-funded tobacco control campaigns in some states, and much more.

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

Whether Big Tobacco succeeds will depend in significant part on whether
tobacco control 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. First, 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.

Second, 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, 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.

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.

It is fear of vilification that 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 U.S.
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 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 the
Berkeley, California-based Americans for Nonsmoker Rights.

When you take on a sophisticated and ruthless multinational industry, she
says, you have to be prepared to withstand bullying 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 Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime
Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common
Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)

AMP Section Name:Tobacco
  • 109 Tobacco