Big Tobacco Goes on Offense
Emerging from its defensive posture of recent years, Big Tobacco, with industry leader Philip Morris at the forefront, is launching a major initiative to bolster its image in the United States.
Not coincidentally, the industry has simultaneously made a major and apparently successful push to block the showing of aggressive new television advertisements that would negatively portray the tobacco companies.
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 beneficent causes.
In its first newspaper advertisement, "Change and tobacco," Philip Morris highlights its 1998 settlement with the U.S. state attorneys general of their suits seeking reimbursement for tobacco-related medical costs.
"The changes brought about by the agreement are consistent with our goal to responsibly market our products to adults who choose to smoke," the ad says. "You've probably noticed some of the more visible changes, like the removal of our tobacco advertising on billboards; but there have also been other significant changes."
The settlement, the ad emphasizes, marks the start of a new era. "One thing is clear: the changes brought about by the Master Settlement Agreement -- as well as other initiatives we are undertaking that go beyond that agreement -- provide us with an opportunity to move forward and resolve tobacco-related issues."
What Kind Of Legacy?
The settlement agreement created a new organization, the American Legacy Foundation, to carry out tobacco control efforts, including producing anti-smoking television advertisements. The Foundation, which is chaired by Washington State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, is very well funded: the settlement requires the industry to put more than $1.5 billion into the Foundation over a 5-year period.
Anti-smoking television advertisements have proven very effective in reducing smoking rates, especially among teens, in California, Florida and Massachusetts.
Ads that have portrayed the industry as manipulative, deceitful and ruthless have generally been most effective. Although evidence is mixed, pure health messages ("smoking gives you cancer") tend to do poorly, especially among teens.
The American Legacy Foundation is modeling its efforts on the Florida campaign, which showed remarkable success in a single year.
Two of the first four advertisements in the Foundation's "Truth" campaign were hard hitting spots that targeted the industry directly. One of the ads 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. The ads were filmed in and near Philip Morris headquarters, but did not show the company name.
CBS refused to air the ads, with a CBS spokesperson saying "they crossed the line." This 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.
Meanwhile, the tobacco companies denounced the advertisements which ran directly counter to their image enhancement efforts. The companies charged that the ads violated a term of the settlement agreement which prohibits the Foundation from "vilifying" the industry.
In a February letter to Gregoire, North Carolina Attorney General Michael Easley wrote that airing the ads "will jeopardize continued funding of the very important anti-youth smoking goals" of the Foundation.
Rather than resist the industry and its allies, the Foundation decided to pull the ads.
Tobacco control advocates fear the decision foreshadows a well-funded but toothless and ineffectual campaign by the Foundation.
Taking on the tobacco industry, says Julia Carol, executive director of the Berkeley, California-based Americans for Nonsmoker Rights, requires a readiness to withstand bullying tactics. "In those places where agencies stand up to bullying tactics, the tobacco industry backs down," she wrote in a letter to Gregoire. "In those that do not, the resulting campaigns have been weakened by self-censorship and are rendered ineffectual."
Image Is Everything
They note the potential effect of Big Tobacco's charm offensive on the juries that will hear many important cases in coming years. If people look more kindly on the companies as responsible members of the community, as jurors they will be less prone to hand out big punitive verdicts.
The image enhancement campaign may also dampen support for national and state legislation that would meaningfully affect the industry's 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.
Tobacco control advocates' concerns about the American Legacy Foundation are equally grave. Besides fearing the Foundation may waste a unique opportunity to run an effective public health campaign, some advocates believe that a failed effort by the Foundation will discredit the idea of "counteradvertising" in particular and tobacco control initiatives in general -- even though such efforts have had great success in individual states.
Finally, as in all tobacco disputes in the United States, there is the looming question of international consequences. Philip Morris's charm offensive is being conducted worldwide -- with many cash strapped public health officials or organizations willing to consider assistance from the tobacco industry. How tobacco control forces in the United States respond to the industry's velvet glove -- its peace offerings as well as its intimidation tactics -- may well affect the tobacco terrain internationally.
-- Robert Weissman