Thursday, June 11, 2009

Philip Morris Already Talking About Its High Standards of Conduct, Based on the Senate's Passage of FDA Regulation of Cigarettes

No more than one hour after the Senate enacted the FDA tobacco legislation championed by the nation's largest cigarette company, that company (Philip Morris) garnered its first public relations victory from the bill by boasting about how the company will now be adhering to "high standards" under a federal regulatory framework.

Philip Morris also boasted to the public about how it has supported this legislation for many years and intimated that it is the Congress that has been slow in its efforts to protect the public health - a place Philip Morris has been in for many years.

In a press release issued shortly after the passage of the legislation, Philip Morris wrote: "We think today's vote by the U.S. Senate is an important step forward on this legislation. For more than eight years, Altria Group has supported tough but reasonable federal regulation of tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration and we are glad to see the progress Congress has made toward that goal. This legislation would establish a regulatory structure and standards for the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco products that should provide important benefits to adult consumers for many years to come. We believe that adult consumers should be the primary beneficiaries of a federal regulatory framework: (1) under which all tobacco product manufacturers and importers doing business in the United States would operate at the same high standards; (2) for the pursuit of tobacco product alternatives that are less harmful than conventional cigarettes; and (3) that should provide for transparent, scientifically grounded, and accurate communication about tobacco products to consumers."

Philip Morris also hinted that it is prepared to use its influence at the regulatory administrative level to prevent the FDA from taking strong action against cigarettes, stating: "We ... believe that the resolution of certain issues would best be handled by rulemaking processes that involve sound scientific data and public participation."

Finally, Philip Morris went so far as to question the constitutionality of the legislation (a hint that it might have thoughts of challenging it in court [if it doesn't, other companies certainly will]), writing: "we have expressed First Amendment reservations about certain provisions, including those that could restrict a manufacturer's ability to communicate truthful information to adult consumers about tobacco products."

The press release closed by boasting how Philip Morris shares the public health goals of the nation's leading health organizations: "the legislation is an important step forward to achieve the goal we share with others to provide federal regulation of tobacco products."

The Rest of the Story

One of my predictions (and criticisms) of the FDA tobacco legislation has been that it will yield a huge public relations victory for Philip Morris. I argued that the nation's leading cigarette company would be able to tell the public that it is a reformed company that really cares about the public's health and is voluntarily and graciously submitting to federal regulation of its products because it cares about adhering to the highest federal regulatory standards. At the same time, the loopholes in the bill and the industry's influence at the regulatory level would allow it to head off any significant changes that would actually harm cigarette consumption, and its profits.

Well, it didn't take more than an hour for Philip Morris to begin laughing its way to the bank.

Within an hour of the legislation passing the Senate, Philip Morris is already reaping the public relations benefits of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids' and other health groups' actions by boasting about how it looks forward to complying with the "highest" of federal regulatory standards.

Just think about that for a minute: Philip Morris is telling the American people that it is going to adhere to the highest standards of federal regulation. What more could anyone ask of a cigarette company, than to be in compliance with high standards of federal regulation?

Philip Morris is also able to associate itself with the public health groups by stating that they "share" the goals of these groups. What a public relations bonanza!

Philip Morris is no longer just a cigarette company. It is now a concerned, responsible corporate citizen, which is allied with the health groups in working toward the common goal of improving the public's health by making sure that cigarettes and other tobacco products are held to the highest standards of federal regulation.

The Altria executives must be laughing their way to the bank, high-fiving each other, still in disbelief that their scheme really worked and that the health groups actually fell for it.

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