A new advertising campaign from tobacco giant Philip Morris has drawn accusations of hypocrisy from official health bodies even though it advocates giving up smoking. ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) echoed the sentiment, describing the company’s press ads – which including a wrap around of a daily newspaper – as a wheeze to enable the manufacturer of the iconic Marlboro brand to get around the UK’s anti-cigarette advertising regulations.
The “Hold My Light” campaign builds on earlier Phillip Morris adverts in which the company claimed that it wished to stop selling cigarettes in the UK. Of course, it still needs to sell tobacco, and its proposed solution is to replace cigarettes with alternative tobacco “delivery systems” such as Iqos, a tobacco warming system the company launched in 2016, and which it says may be effective for smokers who can’t give up but want a nicotine fix that is less toxic than combustion.
However, the relative health harms of warmed tobacco against combusted tobacco are still not fully understood and the jury is still out on whether vaping is a healthier alternative. Nonetheless, the consensus to date is that both tobacco warming and vaping are much less harmful to health than smoking.
So is Philip Morris being hypocritical in positioning itself as an anti-smoking advocate? Well, no doubt the company is sincere about wishing to distance itself from the appalling public health toll of cigarettes. More pragmatically, as smoking rates decline in the developed world, it needs to find other ways to sell tobacco. Like any other public company, Phillip Morris has a duty to its shareholders, its employees and its manufacturing chain – including tobacco farmers – as well as to its customers. If they simply stopped selling cigarettes the business would collapse, and, they claim, other suppliers would step in to leave the public health issues unchanged.
The conflicting demands on the company could perhaps be reconciled if the whole market switched to non-smoking tobacco delivery products. No doubt the changing climate of marijuana legislation around the world is also a factor in the industry’s calculation. There is huge opportunity there and cigarette companies might be well positioned to move into that space as nicotine loses some of its buzz. Alternative “delivery systems” that can be used for pot as well as tobacco could be a winner.
However, the tobacco giant cannot move away from cigarettes just yet, and it’s the gap between their claims and their actions around the world that have led to the charge of hypocrisy. Philip Morris’s UK managing director Peter Nixon told the BBC that the company wanted to work alongside government as an anti-smoking campaigner – and this might be stretching credulity too far. After all, the finest legal minds in the tobacco industry tried and failed to block the recent legislation banning branding on cigarette packaging. What is more, the tobacco industry has a long record of trying to evade anti-smoking legislation where it can’t block it.
Claiming that they want to be partners to government in policies to reduce cigarette smoking is great PR, but putting the fox in charge of the hen house has its dangers. Health bodies have learned from actions by alcohol and gambling companies that they tend to see this as a great way to take the edge off legislative moves that might damage their business.
Even more damning is the evidence that tobacco companies are perfectly happy to continue aggressively promoting cigarettes in parts of the world less accessible to regulation.
Big tobacco might be forgiven for continuing to serve markets in the Middle East and Asia with millions of die-hard smokers who are not giving up any time soon, but being active in trying to grow these markets by targeting the very poor and the very young is harder to overlook.
The cigarette industry is well used to the scepticism that greets its PR efforts, and it has done much to deserve that scepticism. As ASH point out, big tobacco may be correct in claiming that non-smoking tobacco delivery is relatively harmless to health in the short term, but, to misquote Mandy-Rice Davies, they would say that wouldn’t they?
Offering to become a government partner in anti-(cigarette) smoking drives looks very much like a tactic straight out of the playbook used by big alcohol. The cigarette industry knows it has to change to retain its huge profits, but the latest initiative looks clumsy. Their product strategy, PR and policy engagement all need a new delivery system to persuade the health lobbies of their sincerity.