Friday, April 29, 2005

Philip Morris Uses its Support of FDA Legislation to Gain Good Will at Shareholders Meeting

At yesterday's Annual Shareholders Meeting, Louis C. Camilleri, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Altria Group, Inc., used the company's support of recently introduced FDA tobacco legislation to help gain good will for Philip Morris by painting it as "a responsible tobacco company." It was one of three company initiatives that Camilleri relied upon for this purpose; the other two were Philip Morris' website smoking cessation resources and its programs to reduce sales of tobacco to minors (e.g., the "We Card" program).

According to Camilleri's statement: "We are encouraged that legislation has been reintroduced in the U.S. House and Senate to provide the Food and Drug Administration with authority to regulate tobacco products. We support the bills in their entirety because they would establish, for the first time, a comprehensive and coherent national tobacco policy in this country. Importantly, the legislation will also provide a framework and standards for products that could potentially reduce the harm caused by smoking, and define the appropriate ways to communicate about those products."

The Rest of the Story

If Philip Morris is using its support of FDA tobacco legislation to gain good will and improve its public relations, which is clearly intended to improve its bottom line, then several public health groups deserve at least honorable mention for helping to facilitate this public relations coup for the nation's largest tobacco company.

First, by virtue of having negotiated the bill in the first place and having agreed to enough major political concessions without any public health justification so that Philip Morris and its Congressional supporters were appeased, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids can certainly chalk this up as one of its own public relations accomplishments.

Second, by virtue of following the Campaign's lead and agreeing to publicly support a bill that is largely designed to help protect and preserve Philip Morris profits, the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, and American Heart Association deserve some of the credit for this tobacco company public relations victory.

Third, by failing to consult with its own membership before taking a position on the bill and for disseminating misleading information about the bill (chiefly, the omission of its most vigorous supporter - Philip Morris), the American Public Health Association certainly deserves some of the credit for this public relations bonanza for Altria and its Philip Morris subsidiary.

It is interesting that all of these public health organizations have no problem seeing through the smokescreen in front of the other two "accomplishments" that Camilleri cited: the company's assistance to smokers and its support of the "We Card" program. I don't think the idea that smokers would turn to the Philip Morris web site for help quitting smoking is one that is fooling too many public health groups, or that an initiative that emphasizes to kids how smoking is an adult thing is going to get too many public health groups to honestly believe that Philip Morris is now committed to doing something to substantially reduce its profits (and there is published evidence of the lack of efficacy of programs like "We Card").

But for some reason, the smokescreen in front of the third prong of Altria's public relations attack - its support of "comprehensive" FDA tobacco legislation, is so thick that only those outside the beltway (with due exception for ACSH) seem to be able to see it for what it is.

Fortunately, I do not think the bill has a serious chance of passage through the House under its current political composition and with the current Administration and House leadership. Plus, the House Republicans are going to have a field day when they start getting calls from public health advocates urging them to vote down this legislation for the sake of the public's health.

Unfortunately, the public relations victories that Philip Morris is gaining and will continue to gain, even if the bill goes down the tubes, are very real. At the end of the day, it will be quite sad that we - through some of our major public health groups that purportedly represent us - will shoulder some of the blame for these public relations victories for the nation's leading tobacco company.

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