Gooze Views

Peter Galuszka


Call for Philip Morris


Richmond’s elite lauds the cigarette maker for putting its R&D center downtown. But its newly spun-off sister unit still aims to make butts the old-fashioned way, endangering the lives of millions around the world.


Tanya was a middle-aged Russian woman with bobbed hair, dark eyes and a throaty voice who worked for me when I was Moscow Bureau chief for BusinessWeek. As our office manager and lead translator, she could whap out letters in Russian at warp speed on her portable Bulgarian typewriter as she asked for interviews. All the while, she’d puff away on truly foul-smelling Russian cigarettes made up of a heavy dark tobacco.


Her chain-smoking was something to get used to. It wafted through the small, converted two-room apartment that served as our office. (We stacked telex paper in the bathtub.) There were ashtrays everywhere. We’d open the balcony door nine stories up to let out the blue clouds – not an easy task when it was minus 30 outside. Out on the street everyone smoked. In restaurants everyone smoked. Taxi drivers smoked. Twelve-year-olds smoked.


Tanya would be an ideal candidate for Philip Morris International, whose sister company has made a big name in Virginia over the years and employs more than 6,500 people in Richmond. Altria, the holding company that owns Philip Morris, is splitting itself up with not-too-subtle corporate legerdemain.


Facing billions in lawsuits by former smokers and a decline in U.S. smoking, Philip Morris USA, now headquartered in Richmond, is positioning itself as the “good” company that is de-emphasizing cigarettes in favor of other, supposedly less harmful, "smokeless” products. It has gained lots of local good will by opening a $350 million biotechnology center downtown, but it is hard to see what it's doing there that has to do with health, as bio-technology usually does.


Company PR flaks disingenuously claim they are experimenting with snuff, which has been around for centuries. Hmm. Some $350 million in research for “snuff”? Put another way, they're working on new ways to let patients ingest drugs, like nicotine, orally instead of smoking it. Philip Morris has a lot of experience strapping dogs and monkeys to cigarette-smoking machines so maybe there’s some “synergy.” Forget asking what the company is doing, however. Company spokesmen dance around the issue, explaining that the “market” is very “competitive” as if other, more forthcoming businesses don’t face similar pressures.


The “bad” company, Philip Morris International, now based in Europe, doesn’t screw around with such subterfuges. That company has one goal and one goal only: It wants the Tanyas of the world to smoke more. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than half of the world’s smokers live in 15 countries, including Russia, China, India, Indonesia and Bangladesh. They are a big, big market.


The World Health Organization wants to combat the rise in global smoking because about 5.4 million people die prematurely from tobacco-relate cancer each year, the Journal reports. By 2030, the number of victims could rise to 8.3 million, and most are in low to middle-income nations that are ill-prepared to build more cancer wards.


Why the European headquarters for Philip Morris International? To get away from lawsuits and bad press, obviously. Tobacco firms are being accused of tail-dragging away from tougher markets in the U.S. to places like Moscow and China because regulation is lax to non-existent, and their legal systems are too primitive to come up with punitive measures such as the 1996 Master Agreement which cost Philip Morris and other tobacco companies billions of dollars.


Naturally, Altria denies the corporate split up is a ruse to sell in more regulatory-friendly markets. But then its Richmond counterparts want you to believe that they have built a $350 million R&D facility to develop better snuff.


In the past when I have criticized the tobacco industry in the Capital of the Confederacy, I was told that this is Ole Virginny and the South, and they are built on tobacco, with the implication being that an outsider whose last name ends in a vowel might not understand it. Baloney. As a cub reporter I used to cover the Eastern North Carolina tobacco markets and I got a good look at how the federal quota system made it much more lucrative for farmers to grow a useless crop like tobacco rather than beneficial ones like corn or wheat. I know how quota holders used to rake in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars even though they might live on Chicago’s Gold Coast and not on a tobacco farm. And I have been confronted by Farm Bureau lobbyists who were frustrated that I didn’t buy their portrayal of tobacco farmers as sympathetic country folk straight out of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


But we’re not really talking about tobacco farmers rich or poor here. We’re talking about a huge, powerful and well-oiled company and its related parts. The power elite in Richmond and other parts of the state genuflect before it. As for the Tanyas of the world, to hell with them, we’re talking profits and stock prices and, of course, Virginia tradition.


-- February 11, 2008
















Peter Galuszka is a veteran journalist living in Chesterfield County. View his profile here.


(Photo credit: Maria Galuszka.)