Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Harvard Medical School Professors Helping Philip Morris to Market Cigarettes

In a public relations campaign clearly designed to make it appear that Philip Morris is concerned about youth smoking and trying to discourage kids from doing so, the company has produced and disseminated a number of brochures under the running title: "Raising Kids Who Don't Smoke." These brochures are apparently intended for parents, and they present ways that parents can help prevent their kids from smoking. The chief tactic discussed is talking to one's kids about not smoking.

In what appears to be the first issue of a series, there are a number of articles about talking to your child about not smoking. One article addresses the issue of what parents who smoke can do to encourage their kids not to smoke. The second brochure of the series, which is quite similar, also contains a section entitled "If You Smoke," which gives parents advice about what they can do to encourage their kids not to smoke if they themselves are smokers.

These brochures are apparently widely available at places like gas stations, convenient stores, and other small retail outlets.

The Rest of the Story

Philip Morris certainly has the right to conduct its own public relations campaigns and as long as they are not spreading false information, I don't have a problem with their trying to make it appear that they are concerned about the problem of youth smoking. After all, this is what all corporations do. Companies that pollute the environment often fund anti-litter campaigns to make it appear that they are concerned about the environment. Many corporations make philanthropic activity a part of their public relations plans. This is basic public relations and virtually all companies do it.

There's just one problem.

This public relations campaign is not being conducted solely by Philip Morris. The literature for this campaign is also being brought to us by the highly-reputed Harvard Medical School, whose name graces the front page and back cover of the publications and whose faculty member has written the foreword to the brochure.

You see - the brochures were created under the consultation of an advisory board, three of whom are faculty members at Harvard Medical School. One is a physician, one is a Ph.D. scientist and the other holds a doctorate as well as a public health degree. One of these professors is the Chair of the Advisory Board that helped develop these brochures and wrote the foreword to these publications.

So let's examine what these experts from Harvard Medical School have to say about the topic of youth smoking and strategies by which parents can promote a smoke-free decision by their children.

What do the experts say about what to do if you smoke but want to send a message to your child that he or she should not smoke?

The answer is simple. Just tell your kid that you don't want them to smoke. Make it clear to him that you disapprove of smoking. As the brochure states: "Even if you smoke, you can talk to your child about not smoking."

The brochure then gives the following advice: "You may feel guilty. You may think that because your child has told you again and again not to smoke, he would never try it. Or you might feel like a hypocrite telling him not to smoke when it's something he knows you do. ... But you're still the parent. You set the rules."

"As the chart shows, children whose parents smoke cigarettes are at much greater risk for starting the habit themselves. But you can decrease your child's likelihood of smoking if you let him know clearly and repeatedly that you don't approve."

In medicine and public health, we have a term for what we would call this type of advice: irresponsible.

There is no question that the most important step a smoking parent can take to reduce the likelihood of her child smoking is to quit smoking herself. To suggest anything other than that the first and most important action such a parent should take is to quit smoking herself is, in my view, completely irresponsible.

Nowhere in the brochure does it even suggest that one possible option is to quit smoking.

The brochure's response to parents who feel like hypocrites because they tell their children not to smoke while they themselves smoke is not to quit smoking so that they are not hypocrites, but instead, to continue smoking and continue being a hypocrite!

Another piece of advice not suggested by the brochure is to establish a rule of no smoking in the household. My own research has shown that household no-smoking policies are effective in preventing youth smoking initiation, even when a parent smokes. But that suggestion is nowhere to be seen.

Now let's look at what our experts say about the possible factors that influence youth smoking, and the issues that should therefore be discussed with one's children. In the brochure, only three factors are mentioned that influence youth smoking: peer pressure, parental smoking, and parental disapproval of smoking. The brochure repeatedly talks about the need to discuss "peer pressure" with your child.

However, nowhere in the brochure does it mention that maybe, just maybe, the more than $15 billion of tobacco advertising and promotion play some role in influencing smoking initiation. And nowhere does it mention that maybe, just maybe, the potent addictive power of nicotine plays a role in why people become smokers. Apparently, these are not topics that the experts from Harvard Medical School deem worthy of talking to one's children about.

My professional assessment of these brochures is that they are a complete bunch of crap. They are nothing other than a public relations ploy designed to make it appear to the public that Philip Morris is concerned about the problem of youth smoking and is serious about doing something to prevent kids from smoking and to help parents effectively promote a smoke-free decision by their children.

And the use of the Advisory Board of "experts" is simply a ploy to give legitimacy to this public relations campaign. It certainly adds a lot of legitimacy and credibility to have the brochure come out with the name "Harvard Medical School" repeatedly plastered on it than simply to have the name "Philip Morris."

In fact, the name "Harvard Medical School" appears 6 times in the brochure, while the name "Philip Morris" appears only 3 times, and only in small print on the back cover. If you read the entire brochure except for the back cover, or if you don't take the time to read the tiny print on the back cover, your impression would be that the brochure was produced by researchers from Harvard Medical School and other medical schools, not that it was produced by Philip Morris.

Now I am not blaming Philip Morris for this. Actually, I think it's a brilliantly-conceived strategy. If I were working in their public relations office, I probably would have suggested something just like this (although I would have tried to entice someone from Yale University School of Medicine to be suckered into signing on - it's also a highly-reputed medical program, isn't it?).

This is actually what Philip Morris is supposed to be doing. It's what any corporation should do. Public relations, after all, is an essential part of the marketing plan for a company. And this public relations effort is an effective one that is really helping to improve the public image of the company and to help achieve the goal of being perceived as a responsible corporate citizen. This is top-notch public relations work, and I applaud it.

What I do not applaud, however, is the role that Harvard Medical School and some of its faculty members are playing in serving as pawns in this Philip Morris public relations and marketing campaign. I don't think that medical schools or medical school faculty have any business assisting in tobacco company promotional efforts. That's just not part of what the mission of a medical school and its faculty should be.

And these so-called "experts" didn't even pull off a convincing job of producing a reputable and responsible brochure. It's completely irresponsible and nobody who works in the tobacco control field and knows anything about the research on youth smoking initiation would ever be caught dead producing publications like these.

But the crappiness of these brochures is not what this story is about. The rest of the story is that Harvard Medical School and some of its faculty members are, whether they like it or not, assisting Philip Morris in its public relations and marketing activities.

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