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Corky, the satellite, and Fishbone Fred

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Philip Morris (PM) has been causing serious outbreaks of nausea in the United States, Australia, and other countries for many months now, by its new youth programmes about tobacco (see “The pied pipers of puffing” on pages 14–16 of the Spring issue ofTobacco Control). It clearly hopes that projects as inappropriate, most would surely say, as “The Mafia Drugwatch Alert”, or “The Adolf Hitler Foundation for Racial Tolerance”, will be embraced by greedy, lazy, or stupid, naive politicians. PM’s presumed aim is to restore a reputation so unfortunately tarnished by the relentless revelations that the big tobacco companies have systematically lied, bribed, obstructed, and otherwise deceived the world in almost as many ways as the millions of their internal documents which serve as proof.

Corky Newton, vice president for corporate and youth responsibility for Brown and Williamson, answering questions on “peer pressure and parental involvement” at the time of the international policy conference on children and tobacco.

But now PM has a competitor: Brown and Williamson (B&W), American subsidiary of British American Tobacco (BAT), has come up with a real corker. With breathtaking temerity, B&W tried to jump on the publicity bandwagon of the first international policy conference on children and tobacco, which was held in March in Washington, DC, and is reported below. During the conference, B&W issued a circular to the media announcing that its expert on children’s smoking would be available, via satellite link, “to talk about peer pressure and parental involvement”. To book a “television interview window”, journalists only had to lift the telephone to Shandwick, the public relations company acting for B&W, and they and the satellite would do the rest.

And who was this authority on the work of “child psychologists and other experts” who had “determined the top reasons young people smoke”? Step forward B&W’s vice president for corporate and youth responsibility, Mrs Corky Newton. Not renowned for her contributions to the literature of psychosocial research in this area, Corky also apparently knew little about, or was slow to bring to mind, much of the evidence in her field. In either case, it seemed a rather poor show for someone who, based on the researchers’ findings, has been busy “developing programmes in partnership with organisations throughout the country to reduce youth tobacco use, thus demonstrating how one US company is attacking the issue of youth smoking”.

Corky did at least two interviews, and was described by observers as a middle-aged, grandmotherly type, credible but with little media presence. But perhaps that’s exactly the sort of person B&W wants to help restore its public image? After all, when a “vice president” stumbles, when asked to name the cigarette brands made by her paymasters, this would presumably only endear her to cynics who might otherwise suspect that underneath the trustworthy, homespun exterior was just another tobacco executive? Her omission to mention any of her company’s own proud research record, however, did seem to be taking the image a bit far.

Fortunately, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (TFK), Washington based and funded by the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation (who also give generous support to Tobacco Control) were able to offer guidance to journalists interested in a fuller briefing. Using the same press lists targeted by B&W, TFK sent out a good few pages of key research findings by BAT companies over the past few decades, which Corky should surely have known about. They pointed out how internal documents of B&W and its parent company BAT, show that B&W and other BAT affiliates have carried out or commissioned extensive research into why children start smoking, and when they are likely to start; and that they have taken a keen interest in why young people might start smoking the companies’ brands. Many of the fascinating conclusions of this research are now fairly well known around the world, but for the benefit of those who have not yet seen them, we reproduce some here which may be helpful to colleagues, who, like Corky Newton, strive to understand the subject of youth smoking.

  • “More important reasons for this attraction are the ‘forbidden fruits’ aspect of cigarettes. The adolescent seeks to display his new urge for independence with a symbol, and cigarettes are such a symbol since they are associated with adulthood and at the same time adults seek to deny them to the young.” (Careful, Corky, or you could become one of those adults, doing the very thing B&W says it’s so keen to avoid.)

  • “Starters no longer disbelieve the dangers of smoking, but they almost universally assume these risks will not apply to themselves because they will not become addicted. Once addiction does take place, it becomes necessary for the smoker to make peace with the accepted hazards. This is done by a wide range of rationalization.” (How shocking that one must be to Corky, especially the bit about addiction, as must be another, more sinister finding: “The desire to quit, and actually carrying it out, are two quite different things, as the would-be quitter soon learns.”)

  • “Nicotine is the addictive agent in cigarettes.” (These words, by a B&W official in 1983, must be somewhat confusing to Corky, especially when her ultimate boss, BAT’s chief executive Martin Broughton said in 1996: “We have not concealed, we do not conceal, and we will never conceal . . . we have no internal research which proves that smoking is addictive.”) But worse is to come: a B&W project report in 1972 said: “At the last meeting, we were asked to come up with ideas for a ‘youth’ cigarette . . . product or packaging.”

  • But Corky can rest assured that a couple of years later the company seemed to accept the need to do research on children. “The younger smoker is of pre-eminent importance: significance in numbers, ‘lead in’ to prime market, starts brand preference patterning . . . but frustrating to reach: values and behavior at variance with rest of the population, skeptical, intense peer pressure, public policy difficulties. . . . Study the Market and Customer, maintain a continuing dialogue with the ‘New’ Smoker . . . behavior patterns—what they do; Attitudes—what they think; Directions—where they’re headed. . . . Explore and Implement; Create a ‘Living Laboratory’.”

  • A year later, a B&W marketing and research firm recommended that the company “present the cigarette as one of a few initiations into the adult world” and “as part of the illicit pleasure category of products and activities”. (Corky, are you really sure you know what you’ve got into?)

  • A further two years on, a B&W outline (complete with handwritten notes saying “Big legal problem” and “Pull this page”) stated that “Since Kool is heavily oriented toward the young and the brand’s starter index is 10, it will benefit us long-term to develop promotion events that involve the young and especially to convince the starter group to smoke Kool.”

  • In the 1970s, some B&W consultants even recommended cigarettes flavoured with cola (that might be named “Cola-Cola”), or with other sweeteners that might appeal to the youth market, stating that: “It’s a well-known fact that teenagers like sweet products. Honey might be considered.”

In one of her interviews, Corky indicated that B&W had hired an unnamed country music personality to tour elementary schools telling children not to smoke (presumably his style would avoid that bothersome “forbidden fruit” hazard). The television presenter named him as none other than Fishbone Fred—yes, that’sthe Fishbone Fred, nominated for a Grammy entertainment award. He makes records about the joys of fishing, and sings “safety” songs for kids (remember your telephone number; don’t talk to strangers). And yes, he also proclaims a “take care of your heart, be smart, don’t start [smoking]” message, and has toured at least half a dozen states. His website only mentions B&W once, in a story about him playing “before 1,000 kids in Tallahassee [Florida] recently and everybody loved it”.

Corky may think that TFK and Tobacco Controlare being cynical, and would no doubt argue that B&W has turned over a new leaf, to which her moment of fame was evidence. Unfortunately, however, try as one might, something wretchedly keeps popping up in the mind from just 18 months ago, when a tobacco industry public relations firm advised that “company spokespeople assume greater visibility in order to demonstrate the ‘new day’ approach of the tobacco companies”. The trouble is, the new day is just like every other day.

All articles written by David Simpson unless otherwise attributed. Ideas and items for News Analysis should be sent to David Simpson at the address given on the inside front cover.