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It's true. It kills. It's great!

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You are in a restaurant. It is a smart place, obviously very prosperous, and vast. The clientele is truly international—you can see men and women from every corner of the world. Waiters are going around the tables cheerfully pressing the spécialités de maison on the customers, especially the large numbers of Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans down at the far end of the room, and also, you note, on a newly arrived party from Central and Eastern Europe. But wait. One of the proprietors, an American, seems to be having a serious talk with a group of his fellow countrymen sitting near the door. Quietly, you go to the edge of the group to hear what he is saying.

“It's really great to see you folks,” he says, “and we're so pleased to be able to take care of you again. But first there's something I want to mention tonight: the food is poisonous. It won't necessarily kill you, though the medical folk say that if you keep on eating here, there's a fifty-fifty chance. And even if it doesn't actually kill you, they say it could still make you very ill and disabled. You remember all that scare stuff in the press about food poisoning in the restaurants on this street? And how all the restaurateurs have always denied it? Well, in this place, we've decided to come clean. It's only right, and you'll find that as a company, we've really changed lately. Sure, we were less than frank in the past, but things are different now. We have the public interest at heart. About the poison, we've put all the details on a website, so those of you with home computers can check it out at your leisure. But it's all a matter of risk and what you, as adults, choose to eat, and we hope you will choose to eat here for many years to come. Take care, enjoy your meal, and have a nice day!”

Some of the American customers begin to put their coats on and quit the place; others say they will stay around this time but maybe decide later about whether to come back or not. But while the waiters up this end of the room do not seem to be pushing the food quite so hard, what you most notice is that elsewhere they are swarming around more than ever. They are telling the foreign customers that this dish is the one that really fashionable people are eating these days, and that one is what all the sports stars go for. And as for women who want to be glamorous and independent, the chef's new sweet (it's for the slim, modern woman, made only with “lite” synthetic cream) can really help them make a statement about themselves.

This scenario is, of course, pure fantasy, but a parallel one involving the Philip Morris company is not. In mid October last year, Philip Morris announced that it believed there was “an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, and other serious diseases in smokers”. It placed this admission on its corporate website, under the Health Issues for Smokers section. The admission was well publicised, albeit briefly, in the United States and elsewhere in the west, but apparently received little coverage in the developing world.

Cartoon strip run by Philip Morris Polska in a popular Polish TV guide.

Breathtaking audacity? Perhaps, but when one considers the small proportion of its customers, real or potential, who might get as far as reading the website or those genuine health sites to which it is hyperlinked, it begins to look more like a straightforward business decision. In the United States, President Clinton said: “This formal acknowledgement comes far too late, but still we must all welcome it”. While he went on to repeat his view that tobacco companies should answer for their actions in court, and stop marketing to children, it was at least a partial softening in his tone.The Financial Times (UK), however, saw Philip Morris's move simply as part of a strategy to head off “juror rage” and to reposition itself in order to fend off attempts to bring in more regulation. But what really matters is whether the company changes its behaviour abroad, especially in developing countries, where access to the web is small and restricted. After limited coverage of the admissions, there have been no reports of changed marketing practices, nor of local press initiatives to draw foreign smokers' attention to the admissions. Far from that, some of Philip Morris's overseas operations seem to be doing their best to distance themselves from them. In the Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny, Dagmar Staroveska, of Tabak, a.s., 77.6% of which is owned by Philip Morris, was quoted as saying: “It is the position of the American company, not of our company.” And if Philip Morris's record on promotion is anything to go by, it would be almost as dangerous as smoking to hold ones' breath waiting for any change in practice to follow the admissions on disease. The section on marketing of the unctuously self righteous Philip Morris website declares: “The company will not use cartoon characters in its advertisements or promotions.” However, just a few months before the disease admissions, Philip Morris Polska, the company's Polish subsidiary, was running a cartoon strip ad in a popular TV guide with a circulation of around two million readers, and no doubt the same high proportion of child readers that TV guides have everywhere. No, this is a company of strategy, not change.

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