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The pied pipers of puffing
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Imagine if Saddam Hussein sought to sponsor an educational programme for schools on peace studies. Or if the pornography industry tried to sponsor an art appreciation course for schools. Or the Ku Klux Klan a racial harmony programme. Most would think something was a tad fishy. So what are we to make of a tobacco company working behind the scenes to sponsor a health education programme for schools?

Spot the Philip Morris logo … we can’t.

United States Representative Clarence Brown (Republican, Ohio) standing up for tobacco control with a no-smoking role model in front of the Capitol in 1971 at the start of a campaign against smoking by the District of Columbia Medical Society. Mr Brown was clearly pleased to be cementing closer relations with Judy Baker, a prominent figure in tobacco control that year as holder of the title “Miss No Smoking Pin-up”. Times have changed and it is doubtful that any politician today, especially in the United States, would be caught in a similar position, for fear of earning himself a disreputable moniker and going down in the next elections. (Photo credit: UPI Telephoto.)

When Australian, New Zealand, and Fijian schoolchildren returned to school early this year after their summer holidays, some had the dubious privilege of experiencing a new health education programme entitled I’ve got the power—“a programme designed to develop decision-making skills” (figure). The package is being promoted to state education and health ministers, and to private schools by none other than Philip Morris, the world’s largest tobacco company. Some 1500 schools have apparently requested the kit. This is not the first foray into smoking prevention by the local branch of the tobacco giant. In 1996 its “Project Condor” budgeted $420 000 for warning children not to smoke.

Double-dipped in oceans of “edu-babble”, the 33-page teachers’ guide purports to assist teenagers to “know when and how to choose the best” and to “trust your own decisions”. However, Philip Morris has been a bit shy in letting teachers know its interest in the matter. Nowhere in the entire booklet is the company’s name mentioned. The words “tobacco” or “smoking” appear only twice throughout. Although claiming that the kit will help “students learn about aspects of health that are community priorities, for example . . . tobacco”, there is not one piece of information about smoking and health.

So what is Philip Morris’ interest in children’s smoking? In public, its position is clear. It has repeatedly said it doesn’t want children to smoke. James Morgan, chief executive officer of Philip Morris USA put it plainly: “There is a perception that Philip Morris is interested in marketing to youth. But never in the 30 years I have been marketing cigarettes have I been in a meeting where we discussed marketing to youth. That’s a fact and I would swear to it under oath.”

But what has the company been saying privately about teenage smoking? The millions of pages of internal company documents that were posted on the internet last year when the state of Minnesota successfully sued the tobacco companies, contain many Australian documents that tell a rather different story. For example:

  • In 1984, reviewing the local slide of Marlboro brand share, Philip Morris wrote to the Leo Burnett advertising agency: “To PM management the fundamentals of the task are as follows: Marlboro Country as a campaign does not appeal to non-smokers with a future disposition to smoke when they are forming brand preferences.” Given that if a person is not smoking by age 18 they are unlikely ever to start, it is plain what sort of non-smokers they had in mind.

  • Inter-office correspondence between Philip Morris’ American and Australian offices stated: “The key problems seem to be [Marlboro’s] lack of appeal to younger smokers and this is the area which needs to be addressed. One possibility might be to concentrate on sampling and promotion as many young smokers have never had any first hand experience with the product.” (emphasis in original)

  • In 1990, another Marlboro plan stated: “Overall objective: Position Marlboro as a “cult” brand—to attract new smokers . . . 23% of the population is 15 years of age and under. 17% is 16–24 years of age. Given predisposition to try/adopt new brands, this segment represents significant market opportunity.”

American Philip Morris documents continue the same theme:

  • Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer. . . . The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris . . . the share index is highest in the youngest group for all Marlboro and Virginia Slims packings.”

Last year, around 336 000 Australian schoolchildren smoked more than 373 million cigarettes costing around $A98 million. Philip Morris’ has about 50% of the teenage market. If each of this cohort of children smoked for another 25 years, after graduating to average adult consumption (20 cigarettes a day), they will smoke their way through more than 61.3 billion cigarettes, spending at today’s prices $A15.9 billion, of which 18.5% will go to the tobacco industry. And with each year that goes by, another 70 000 children start smoking for the first time.

The Australian Philip Morris campaign mirrors a $US100 million anti-smoking campaign now being directed at teenagers in the United States. Michael Szymanczyk, the president and chief executive of Philip Morris said recently: “We don’t want kids to smoke. . . . I really don’t care if we get any publicity about it at all. . . . From my point of view, you do these things because they are the right things to do, not as PR campaigns.”

By investing in so-called educational campaigns, Philip Morris will be able to legitimise its interest in researching teenagers about smoking. Its vice president in the United States, Ellen Merlo, was reported recently in the American advertising industry newspaper Ad Week saying: “We are doing a lot of research and study on youth smoking prevention to identify the right message and the right programs”. Judging by the tepid and woolly product being touted around Australian and Pacific Island schools, what’s “right” to Philip Morris is anything that avoids exposing children to the very information about tobacco that previous generations of children have learned about in government-produced curricula.

Governments and private schools which endorse tobacco company health education programmes are allowing the industry to posture as concerned corporate citizens, while the Minnesota documents and commonsense show the industry to be nothing less than corporate pied pipers.

Examples of the Philip Morris documents can be found at < au/tobacco/Ozdocs.htm >