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Wednesday, October 13, 1999 Published at 14:16 GMT 15:16 UK

Business: The Company File

Why Philip Morris coughed

Cigarette makers are lifting the safety smokescreen

By BBC News Online's John Brunsdon

Telling the world that you sell a product which kills people might not seem the smartest of marketing moves.

Tobacco wars
  • The US legal battle
  • Tobacco economics
  • Smoking goes global
  • Cigarette health file
  • Timeline: the tobacco war
  • But tobacco giant Philip Morris has done just that as a central part of a $100m advertising campaign designed to turn its image around.

    The name behind Marlboro and Benson & Hedges has admitted publicly for the first time that smoking can cause fatal diseases.

    While it might seem to be shooting itself in the foot, the admission has some very strong practical and financial motivations behind it.

    [ image: Philip Morris: Not just cigarettes]
    Philip Morris: Not just cigarettes
    Philip Morris, along with other tobacco companies, remains under attack from the US government, health insurers and public health advocates who want the industry to help pay the costs of treating sick smokers and to discourage children from starting to smoke.

    The industry recently reached settlements under which it will pay $246bn to the 50 US states over 25 years, and accepted restrictions on marketing cigarettes in exchange for withdrawal of lawsuits.

    Central to the case against the tobacco companies is the argument that they suppressed information about the addictive qualities and harmful effects of smoking - effectively denying the public the ability to make an informed judgement on whether to smoke or not.

    The BBC's Angela Garvey: "Investor confidence is at rock bottom"
    By admitting smoking is dangerous, and being open about what ingredients are put in their cigarettes, Philip Morris may give itself a stronger defence against cases relating to smokers who take up the habit from now on.

    But the admission does not amount to the company holding its hands up in the ongoing cases against it - those bringing the suits would still have to prove that illnesses were caused by Philip Morris cigarettes, not environmental, genetic or other factors.

    However, the admission is about more than covering their backs, just as Philip Morris is about more than cigarettes.

    Image change

    The group not only makes smoking products, but is also behind big name products like Miller beer and Kraft Foods.

    While stonewalling charges that smoking kills might help your defence in court, it does not do much for a company's image in the supermarket aisles.

    Philip Morris is, in effect, getting the nasty stuff out of the way so that it can present a different face to the consumer.

    The multi-million dollar advertising campaign will focus on the "touchy-feely" side of the company.

    In one commercial, an elderly woman expresses her appreciation for tangerines and other food she has been receiving from a food bank supported by Kraft Foods.

    High-profile campaign

    Another ad tells the story of a women abused by her husband and how she rebuilt her life and kept her children safe with help from a programme for abused women to which Philip Morris has contributed.

    A third ad recounts how Miller Brewing supplied bottled water to flood victims.

    The company's TV ads were to begin running during Wednesday's baseball play-off games and will appear on high-profile news, sports and primetime shows like ER.

    Steven Parrish, senior vice president for corporate affairs for Philip Morris, said the campaign should educate people that Philip Morris is more than a tobacco company, and that it "contributes significantly to improving lives".

    He said: "For too long we have let others define who we are."

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