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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

Defending the indefensible

A business that favors strong government regulation of its chief product is a counterintuitive “man bites dog” story that's bound to get plenty of public attention. And so it was with the visit this week to Toledo by a high-ranking lawyer for Altria Group, Inc., known until a couple of months ago as Philip Morris.

Altria, which markets Kraft macaroni and cheese, Oreo cookies, and - not so incidentally - Marlboro cigarettes, is trying hard to market itself as a responsible, community-minded, even philanthropic concern.

The company proudly notes that nationally it is “one of the largest corporate contributors to programs to help prevent hunger, combat domestic violence, support the arts, and provide disaster relief.” Philip Morris USA spends $100 million a year on “youth smoking prevention.”

But take a closer look at the type of smoking regulation Altria does not support.

It opposes smoking bans, like the one recently imposed in New York City and the one that would be in effect in Toledo and Lucas County had not the Ohio Supreme Court intervened.

As for the health danger to restaurant and bar employees who are forced to inhale second-hand smoke on the job, the Altria lawyer gently suggests, in so many words, that they have a choice to find another line of work.

Far from being progressive, that's the standard chamber of commerce line. Sad to say, most business owners will do little to protect the public health unless it's required by law.

Some of Altria's rhapsodizing about “reshaping our corporate culture” and “commitment to the communities” is pretty persuasive and even begins to sound reasonable - until you stop to think about what fuels the firm's largesse.

According to its annual report, Altria made $11.1 billion in net profit last year. The company says that 60 percent of that profit - some $6.66 billion - was derived from the sale of tobacco products. And tobacco use, according to the United States Supreme Court, is “perhaps the single most significant threat to public health” in the country.

One way to quantify that threat is to remember that, as the American Lung Association points out, “smoking-related diseases claim an estimated 430,700 American lives each year. Smoking costs the United States approximately $97.2 billion each year in health-care costs and lost productivity. It is directly responsible for 87 percent of lung cancer cases and causes most cases of emphysema and chronic bronchitis.”

So, to put it bluntly, Altria is dealing death by continuing to market cigarettes, both in this country, where the number of people who smoke is shrinking, and elsewhere, especially in developing countries, where it is growing.

Is that truth mitigated to any degree by the company's frank, self-effacing acknowledgement of tobacco risks and its support of regulation on advertising and sales to young people? To a degree, perhaps. But we can't lose sight of the fact that the tobacco industry still makes and markets a product that, taken as directed, can kill.

Altria can rightly claim credit for being more progressive and forthcoming than others in the tobacco industry. However, about the best that can be said for its marketing strategy is that it is a genial defense of the indefensible.

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