Philip Morris and Alice in Wonderland

It might seem like a simple question: Is it hard to quit smoking tobacco?

For Philip Morris, past and present, it depends on what kind of barriers your corporate lawyers have erected.

To Louis C. Camilleri, CEO of Philip Morris International, now conveniently based in Switzerland, the answer is no. While smoking is addictive, he admitted, “it is not that hard to quit.” Camilleri made the statement at PMI’s annual meeting in New York.

Meanwhile, down in Richmond, at its annual meeting, Michael E. Szymancyk, CEO of Philip Morris USA, said that yes to both questions. “Because tobacco use is addictive and can be very difficult to quit, our tobacco companies help connect adult tobacco consumers who have decided to quit with cesssation information from public health authorities,” he told shareholders at Richmond’s convention center.

Confused by this Alice in Wonderland doubletalk from what was once the world’s greatest cigarette maker? It’s just one of many contradictions.

The two Philip Morris were split apart by corporate fiat and an army of corporate lawyers a few years back. The reason? The U.S. branch, now headquartered in Richmond, still makes cigarettes but tells you not to smoke them, yet it still makes a tidy profit by doing so. Last year, sales were $16.8 billion with net income of $3.8 billion.

Philip Morris International, which sells tobacco products everywhere but the U.S, rakes in even more dough: $27 billion in sales and $7 billion in profit last year.

The company split up was arranged to help block the U.S. version of Philip Morris from health-related lawsuits and for the American version to promote tobacco regulation by the Food and Drug Administration on terms favorable PM USA, in other words, in ways that lock in the dominant market share of its best-selling product, Marlboro brand cigarettes.

While PM USA, now wonderfully separate, fights a holding action on U.S. soil, its one-time sister can hop sctoch the rest of the world selling even deadlier products. PMI has been testing a series of new — some more potent — tobacco products around the world.

One is Marlboro Intense that was test-marketed in Turkey. A shorter version of the flagship smoke, Marlboro Intense has tobacco packed more densely so a smoker can get a quicker nicotine kick when time is of the essence — say, eating out at a smoking-restricted restaurant or working in a smoke-free building. Another product, fatter cigarettes called Marlboro Wides, was test-marketed in Portugal in 2006. The following year, the company introduced Marlboro Mix 9, a high tar and nicotine cigarette, in Indonesia, where more than half of all males smoke daily.

So, the, is it any surprise that Louis Camilleri, head of PMI, is going to say that it isn’t that hard to quit smoking while Szymanczyk says (oh, moan) that it is?

The two companies are rich, well-run and deep-pocketed. Altria, owner of PM USA, buys favor by making major contributions to education, the arts, sports and culture. In Richmond, for instance, the decline or departure of a number of important companies has meant that just about two, electric utility Dominion and Altria, bankroll just about every community activity. And when the Virginia BioTechnology Research Park was floundering a few years back because it had little to show among its very large field of competing parks, newly-arrived Altria plopped down $350 million for a new research lab. Of course, they’re not about to tell you what goes on inside those lab walls.

What’s still overdue, however, is a reckoning. The handwriting is on the wall for tobacco products, unless you are dealing with Third World types who live in smoking cultures and haven’t been elevated to the level of caring or understanding about health warnings. In this country, cigarette smoking is on the decline. U.S. tobacco farmers started going to through a major downsizing two decades ago. The days of making deadly products and then telling customers not to use them can’t last forever. Even smokeless tobacco has been shown to be dangerous as use disappoints its makers.

It is “Oh So Richmond”, that the city (and the state) still bets on a losing horse. Not the first time, though. Look at 1861.

Peter Galuszka

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