As holiday shoppers scramble for last-minute gifts, the barrage of advertisements taking advantage of the season of giving is reaching its peak. The same rule of thumb that explains the sell-out of the must-have toy of the season also applies to tobacco: the most heavily advertised brands are the most popular. The leading brand among teens in the United States is Marlboro, peddled to kids by what has been called the number one advertising icon of all time, the Marlboro cowboy.
This insidious image, which was designed to “capture the youth market’s fancy,” according to its creator, made Philip Morris the world’s largest and most profitable tobacco corporation.
Philip Morris is now trying to cover the Marlboro Man’s tracks by changing the corporation’s name to Altria, supposedly derived from a Latin word which means “high.” This most recent trick pulled from its bag is just another public relations stunt. Philip Morris is still trying to convince the public it’s a new and improved company, without changing the abusive practices that make it one of the world’s most reviled corporations.
The proposed name change is only its most recent attempt at public deception. Philip Morris has been trying to obscure the reality of its deadly tobacco business from the public for years. Attempts to hide behind the wholesome image of its subsidiary Kraft Foods have backfired.
A Harris Interactive Poll released earlier this year found that 16 percent of respondents familiar with Philip Morris had boycotted its products within the past year. That figure is even more surprising given that between 1998 and 2000, Philip Morris increased its corporate image advertising by over 1,700 percent! Unlike the hot new toy in the marketplace, consumers aren’t buying Philip Morris’s PR ploys.
What Philip Morris doesn’t seem to understand is that consumers want real change, not a name change. A recent report released by the corporate accountability organization Infact tells the real story behind Philip Morris’ window dressing. Over 160 countries are negotiating the world’s first public health treaty, which has the potential to rein in Big Tobacco and help prevent the spread of global tobacco addiction, which will claim 10 million people per year by 2030 if current trends are not reversed. The Infact report documents that Philip Morris has been working at the international level to undermine the treaty and other public health regulations in many countries.
One example highlighted in the report is that this past July, Philip Morris, which controls 85 percent of the Czech tobacco market, commissioned and circulated a study claiming that tobacco cuts government spending for programs such as health care, pensions, and housing for the elderly due to the premature deaths of smokers, resulting in a net economic gain.
Not only is this a frightening logic on which to base public health policy, but it’s not true. The study flies in the face of a 1999 World Bank study, which found that comprehensive tobacco control policies could bring unprecedented health benefits without harming economies.
This holiday season, as Philip Morris bombards us with slick ads touting Kraft’s wholesome image, consumers from coast to coast will be sending a powerful message to the tobacco giant.
As we begin to shop for ingredients for family recipes, families will take care not to purchase Kraft products in order to keep the Marlboro Man away from the holiday table. People will not support an abusive tobacco corporation that systematically undermines public health regulations and uses advertisements like the Marlboro cowboy to hook kids on tobacco.
Patricia Lynn is Infact’s associate campaign director. Infact is a Boston-based national grassroots corporate watchdog organization.