By Peter Galuszka

Tobacco has always been a powerful industry in Virginia since the days of the Jamestown colony. It is no less influential today as Henrico County-based Philip Morris USA and its parent firm, Altria,  constantly play shell games about the hazards of their products.

Just before Christmas, and right in time for the 2012 election year, Altria trotted out a new Website called “Citizens for Tobacco Rights” that seems designed to tap some of the anti-government, anti-regulation fervor of the Tea Party movement to boost its top line.

The company says that it is offering the Website so that smokers know their rights. It has a virtual smorgasbord of information about taxation, local and state laws limiting smoking and other government efforts to somehow restrict tobacco use, which is one of the largest health issues in the U.S. and kills a about 400,000 every year.

Yet what makes this new Website peculiar is that it goes against Altria’s low-profile public image that the firm has been trying hard to invent since it was one of four cigarette makers dunned for $206 billion by 46 states in 1998 because of health risks.

Philip Morris, consequently, started including health warnings about its products in four-color paper flyers and also on its Web page. In 2008, the firm split itself into two parts. Philip Morris International, based on Lausanne, Switzerland, was free to make cigarettes with several times the addictive nicotine and tar content as ones made in the U.S. and market them vigorously in the Third World where people might not understand the link between cancer, lung disease and other ailments and smoking.

Philip Morris USA, on the other hand,  took a far more benign approach, and from its new headquarters in Richmond, clung to a gradually diminishing base of smokers while telling them they really shouldn’t smoke. As it states on its Website: “PM USA agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking cause lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers. Smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases, like lung cancer, than non-smokers. There is no safe cigarette.”

The statement is on one part of the corporate Website. For an entirely different view, click on the new “Citizens for Tobacco Rights” page on the same site.  You get the impression that ordinary cigarette users are having their God-given rights trampled upon by nefarious do-gooders and government regulators. Let’s wave the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Invite Sarah Palin to speak.

One can only speculate on why Altria is trying this gambit at this particular moment. The obvious reason is that the firm’s propagandists want to tap the Tea Party sentiment to boost sales. In 2010, Altria Group reported net revenues of $24.3 billon, a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year.

The firm complains that it has been under heavy pressure since federal excise taxes were boosted in the late 1990s and many states and localities have banned cigarette smoking in public places. One is New York City, where city officials and not easily impressed with corporate money and from which Altria retreated its headquarters to Richmond. Another reason for the Web page could be that it’s been a long time since the 1998 health settlement and people tend to forget.

In Virginia, Altria is considered a sacred cow. It employs about 6,000 people and is one of the leading donors to universities, the arts and research. Its impact is especially strong in Richmond, where it operates its last large cigarette manufacturing plant in the country and funds everything from chairs at Virginia Commonwealth University to the Richmond Symphony.

Don’t think that the largesse doesn’t come without strings. When an artist wanted 400,000 cigarettes for a piece of artwork that was to be displayed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Philip Morris said no even though it is a major sponsor of the museum. VMFA public relations people were careful to play that one down.

The new Website underlines, once again, the hypocrisy and contradictions of Philip Morris USA and Altria. Its ploys to encourage people to stand up for their rights while warning them its products kill are beyond routine cynicism. As it has since 1609, Virginia just plays along.

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9 responses to “More Hypocrisy from Philip Morris USA”

  1. Peter, you knock Philip Morris for hypocrisy (perhaps with some justification). But I ask you this: Would you allow smokers any rights at all? If you would, what is wrong with PMUSA informing its customers what those rights are? Do you oppose transparency, or should people just stay in the dark?

  2. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Don’t understand the question: would I allow smokers any rights at all? Legally, smokers have the right to smoke, despite the high costs to themselves and society at large. Why don’t you ask yourself a similar question: do heroin users have any rights at all? Should they be kept in the dark? Both addictive and deadly although, thanks to tradition and big money, tobacco is legal.

  3. I’d wonder what percent of Medicare and MedicAid are spent to treat health problems associated with cigarette smoking?

    when people use legal products that are known to cause health problems and they received subsidized health care from other taxpayers… or are the taxes on cigarettes dedicated to health care for cigarette smokers?

  4. Groveton Avatar


    I am surprised at you. Aren’t you the first to demand that people pay the full location variable costs of their settlement decisions? Why isn’t the same philosophy applicable to lifestyle decisions such as smoking? Do you believe that smokers pay the full health variable costs of their choice? What about heavy drinkers? It seems to me that smokers and heavy drinkers should have rights that start when they have personally paid the economic costs of their lifestyle decisions.

    I believe that Virginia has the 49th lowest tax on cigarettes in the USA. Do you believe that Virginia is collecting sufficient funds from smokers to pay for the health related costs of smoking? Do you think Virginia would have the 49th lowest tax on cigarettes if Philip Morris was based in Delaware? Isn’t the decision to limit the taxes on cigarettes a subsidy to cigarette makers from the non-smokers in Virginia?

    I find it odd that you rail against subsidies for human settlement patterns while being perfectly comfortable supporting the rights of smokers. Let’s be honest – you really don’t know whether different human settlement patters really cause location based subsidies. At least, you don’t know the extent of those subsidies. The same is true for smoking. Have you ever seen an analysis of what the ongoing health costs of smoking are in Virginia vs. what the state extracts in taxes on smoking? My guess is that neither analysis is available. Yet you rail on mysterious location variable cost subsidies while looking for ways the promote the rights of smokers.


  5. Groveton, The answer is simple. I think smokers should pay higher insurance rates commensurate with the added burden they place on the health care system. If you smoke, you pay a higher rate. It’s the exact same principle as location-variable costs.

    My position is totally consistent. Just as people should be free to live where they please as long as they pay the location-variable costs associated with their decisions, smokers should be free to smoke… as long as they pay the associated costs of their habit.

    I do not believe in social engineering or compelling people to do things they choose not to do. On the other hand, I do not believe in subsidizing irresponsible or uneconomic behavior. If people make choices that inflict economic consequences upon others, they should pay.

    Pretty basic stuff, really.

  6. ” I think smokers should pay higher insurance rates” ha ha ha.. you’re SUCH a KIDDER.

    what insurance company with half-a-brain would agree to insure a smoker especially after he/she has developed health conditions associated with smoking?

    how many “portable air”, expensive drugs, and Mobility Scooters are paid for by taxpayers for 65year old smokers with emphysema or related ?

    how about some individual mandates here?


  7. clarke conservative Avatar
    clarke conservative

    There was a report done for PM in Czech Republic by Arthur D Little in 2001 stating that smoking basically saved the government money. Early deaths from smoking reduced the time pension benefits had to be paid out, eliminated health care costs for other procedures, extra taxes receiving from the sale of tobacco, etc of those citizens who smoked verses those who did not smoke and lived longer.

    I think our government fully realizes this. Why else would most of the tobacco settlement money the states received be spent on everything – except tobacco secession programs?

  8. well.. perhaps what we should do then is pay all Medicare costs for smokers with a tax on cigarettes… and separate those costs so we don’t have to have “studies” to determine costs.

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