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“Don't smoke,” buy Marlboro

BMJ 1999; 318 (Published 08 May 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1296
1. William D Novelli, president
1. Campaign for Tobacco-free Kids, Washington DC, USA

The annals of literature are full of instances of misanthropes, knaves, and other antisocial characters who come to see the error of their ways and spend their declining years doing good works and helping their fellows. We were therefore intrigued by an announcement late last year by tobacco giant Philip Morris that it was prepared to spend $100m a year in a US campaign to reduce young people's smoking. Was this, at last, an honest attempt by Philip Morris to end its seductive marketing practices that have led to the tobacco addiction of millions of children and teenagers around the world? Philip Morris has produced a series of television advertisements entitled “Think. Don't Smoke” and has made them the centrepiece of its antismoking campaign for teenagers. The advertisements tell children that they have a choice whether to smoke. Do they work? The answer is probably not, according to a study released earlier this month (Wall Street Journal 7 April). Focus groups of 12-16 year olds were shown the Philip Morris antismoking adverts along with those from California, Massachusetts, Florida, and Arizona. The children found the Philip Morris adverts to be the least effective of all in making them “stop and think” about not smoking. Some of the respondents said that the Philip Morris adverts sounded more like a parental lecture, and overall there was a feeling that they lacked substance and good reasons not to smoke. It is reasonable to wonder why Philip Morris would undertake a multimillion dollar antismoking campaign that would seemingly undercut its efforts to attract new customers (90% of new smokers in the United States are under age). After all, Philip Morris is still spending far more on cigarette marketing that affects children adversely than on keeping tobacco out of their hands. In fact, the Marlboro Man, the rugged all-American cowboy tobacco icon, is one of the best reasons to be sceptical of Philip Morris's intentions. Marlboro's 40 year global advertising campaign is arguably one of the most successful in the history of advertising. The association of an addictive product with images of cowboys, virility, and the American West has made Marlboro the brand of choice children worldwide. In the United States Marlboro is preferred by 60% of 8th, 10th, and 12th grade boys and girls (14-18 year olds) who smoke. Among white 12th graders, Marlboro's share of the market is even higher at 70%. Between 1988 and 1997, the Marlboro campaign was responsible for convincing 1.4 million children to try smoking. If current trends continue, about 200 000 of these new smokers will die prematurely from smoking related disease. If Philip Morris was truly serious about stopping the alarming spread of teenage smoking, it would start by dropping the Marlboro Man and changing its marketing practices that influence children, such as advertising in magazines with high youth readership. In reality, Philip Morris is getting maximum public relations value out of its teenage antismoking campaign while achieving little in results. The tobacco industry has a long history of diverting attention away from its true motives. The release of internal documents in recent years has shown how tobacco companies have misled the public about the dangers of smoking and how they have directed marketing at children. As previously, the industry responds to threats of legislation or litigation with public relations campaigns. A 1995 internal Philip Morris document quoted Ellen Merlo, Philip Morris's senior vice president of corporate affairs, warning her colleagues, “If we don't do something fast to project the sense of industry responsibility regarding the youth access issue, we are going to be looking at severe marketing restrictions in a very short time. Those restrictions will pave the way for equally severe legislation or regulation on where adults are allowed to smoke.” Does that sound like a company concerned about children smoking? Another aspect of Philip Morris's strategy is to try to enhance its image by attracting credible health, education, and youth organisations as partners in its teenage antismoking effort. So far, only one group has agreed to participate: the National 4-H Council, a respected group that fosters partnerships between young people and adults, has agreed to take$4m from Philip Morris. The council claims that it has been given assurances that Philip Morris will not try to control how the money for antismoking programmes is spent. Still, there has been considerable dissension within the organisation, and many of the council's state level programmes have refused to be associated with Philip Morris. California's 4-H advisory council wrote to the president of the National 4-H Council, admonishing him that “4-H does not belong in Marlboro Country.” Many in the organisation believe that any association with Philip Morris will damage the reputation of 4-H.

Marlboro man: flavour of the century?

It is clear that Philip Morris is trying to buy respectability, and little else, with its \$100m. From past events, it's easy to conclude that Philip Morris wouldn't have it any other way.

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