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To be (or not to be) Marlboro

Health writer Geoffrey Cowley answers your comments and questions about a tobacco giant's latest effort to recruit young smokers.
A man lights a cigarette at a seaside park in Manila, Philippines.
A man lights a cigarette at a seaside park in Manila, Philippines.

Phillip Morris International’s latest marketing campaign—“Be Marlboro”—has sparked outrage in 50 countries. As msnbc reported last week, the campaign revives the iconic Marlboro Man as a thrill-seeking hipster and invites young people to emulate him.

Here, msnbc health writer Geoffrey Cowley responds to your questions and comments about the tobacco industry’s marketing practices.

Alicia Maule: Geoff: Besides the fact that it’s a multibillion dollar industry, how do executives of cigarette companies justify their product given all the lethal health risks?

ljhaysThey just shift the responsibility to the stupid smokers--”we’re just providing a product that people can choose to use or not.” If it weren’t for the taxes generated by tobacco use, the industry might have died a long time ago.

Geoffrey Cowley: After decades of ludicrous denial, the tobacco industry now acknowledges that its products are deadly. Yet the companies continue to hold themselves blameless for manufacturing, promoting and distributing the world’s leading cause of preventable death. They claim they’re just satisfying a demand that exists in nature. In fact, the industry survives by creating that demand. If tobacco companies stopped luring young people into addiction, they would be bankrupt in a generation. 

"If tobacco companies stopped luring young people into addiction, they would be bankrupt in a generation."'

Here’s how Phillip Morris International describes the health effects of smoking:

More than 5,000 chemicals—or smoke constituents—are formed when tobacco is burned. More than 100 of these smoke constituents have been identified by public health authorities as causes or potential causes of smoking related diseases, including cardiovascular disease (heart disease), lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema, chronic bronchitis). Smokers are far more likely to become sick with one of these diseases than non-smokers. In addition, smoking is addictive, and it can be very difficult to stop smoking.

And here’s how the company touts its own products:

We have the industry’s strongest and most diverse brand portfolio, led by Marlboro, the world’s number one selling brand, and L&M, the third most popular brand. Overall, seven of the top 15 international brands in the world are ours. Marlboro has been the world’s number one cigarette brand since 1972 and is one of the most powerful trademarks among all consumer products. In 2012, Marlboro’s volume outside the United States was 301.6 billion cigarettes, which makes it bigger than the next two largest brands combined. In fact, Marlboro’s volume exceeds that of the top four global drive brands of British American Tobacco (BAT) combined, and the total of Japan Tobacco International’s (JTI) four global focus brands.

Can anyone out there reconcile those statements? I sure can’t.

Tyler: Geoff, you write that “PMI has aggressively expanded the campaign in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, targeting such tobacco-ravaged countries as China, Indonesia and the Philippines.” Do you think that PMI is ever going to give up on snagging another generation in the U.S.? Perhaps not pull advertising completely, but shift the focus almost entirely to other countries? I think it’s a matter of time, but I keep coming back to America being the locus of cool. Perhaps they need to maintain a foothold in a country that exports so much culture.

Geoffrey Cowley: The industry clearly sees a big future for itself in emerging economies, but I don’t think it's about to write off the domestic youth market. As smoking becomes less socially acceptable, cigarette companies are targeting kids with a range of smokeless products. Candy-flavored tobacco products (grape, cherry, apple, peach and berry, to name just a few) are flooding the U.S. market, even as the sale of conventional cigarettes declines. Here, from the New England Journal of Medicine, is a quick rundown of the products tobacco companies are now pitching to American kids:

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009 banned U.S. sales of cigarettes with “characterizing flavors” other than menthol. However, that ban does not extend to the many products that are not categorized as cigarettes under U.S. tax law. These products include cigarette-like small and large cigars, cigarillos, blunts (large cigars composed of a tobacco-based paper overwrap holding shredded tobacco [such as a “Phillies Blunt cigar”]), conventional rolled-leaf cigars, “roll-your-own” tobacco, “blunt wraps” (i.e., tobacco-based wraps — often flavored — that are related to the wraps used on a blunt cigar and are often used to roll cannabis), hookah tobacco, moist snuff for “dipping,” “dissolvables” such as Camel Orbs, and electronic cigarettes.

mark koth: Does it make sense for the taxpayer to pay for medical services for people that smoke? If they don’t care about their health, why should we? And that question could also be asked of the grossly over-weight, couldn’t it? Just asking....

Geoffrey Cowley: It depends on your perspective. I think our health system should reward people for avoiding needless risks, but I don’t favor ditching people who develop preventable illnesses. If we followed that logic, only the most conscientious among us would qualify for care. I’d rather reduce the risk by limiting corporations’ ability to promote harmful products—from cigarettes to soda—to kids.

gillanator: You say the industry “steadfastly denies making any effort to recruit new smokers, claiming that its multi-billion-dollar marketing efforts serve only to inform adult users about ‘the available product range’ and ‘their preferred product choice.’” The tobacco companies’ CEOs testified under oath in front of Congress that cigarettes were not addictive. Why in the hell would anyone believe them about the above comment or anything else they say?

Geoffrey Cowley: Good question! The companies issuing these pious denials have spent decades studying and refining the most effective ways to recruit young smokers. Phillip Morris International’s “Be Marlboro” campaign comes straight out of the company’s own youth-marketing playbook.

ElitistLiberal: Promoting cancer death sticks should be illegal, period. Besides, do cigarettes really need promoting? I’m pretty sure even kids are aware that they exist. The sheer fact that these demonic companies target children in low-income nations now is quite telling about their total lack of caring and compassion for other human beings.

Geoffrey Cowley: The World Health Organization agrees with you on the first point. Its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control calls on all countries to ban tobacco advertising outright. Few if any have gone that far (U.S. law bars only ”sponsorship of any athletic, musical or other social or cultural events”). But I do think we’re moving in the right direction. When New York City adopted its landmark Smoke-Free Air Act of 2002, such sweeping indoor bans were all but unheard of. They’re now common throughout the world.

In response to your question (Do cigarettes really need promoting?): Yes, I believe they do. Advertising works. That’s why the five leading tobacco companies spend $12.5 billion a year ($34 million every day) promoting their products. If they couldn’t actively recruit “replacement smokers,” they would quickly run out of customers with pulses.

Dave from Saint Louis: I’m about 55. My first favorite cartoon was “Eighth Man”. He would smoke a cigarette to recharge/boost his energy. I can also recall the product advertisement built into one of the Dick van Dyke shows. We are doing better now. The spots that show some of the horrors of smoking are excellent. The tobacco farmer I saw not too long ago who said he feels a little better about it because his tobacco went overseas sticks in my mind. He didn’t look too happy.

Geoffrey Cowley: You're right—we’ve come a long way since the days when Camels were sold as the brand doctors recommend most. Joe Camel, the cartoon character who helped R.J. Reynolds snag children during the late 1980s, is now remembered as Joe Chemo. But with the Be Marlboro campaign running in 50 countries, we still have a long, long way to go.

@Echo_EightFive: How about taking responsibility for your kids and teach them about health so they can make the right decisions.

Geoffrey Cowley: An excellent idea, but parental guidance is no match for a multi-billion-dollar marketing machine. I’d pair parental guidance with stronger limits on youth-targeted marketing. We all teach our kids to watch out for oncoming cars, but we also post speed limits in school zones. 

"I’d pair parental guidance with stronger limits on youth-targeted marketing. We all teach our kids to watch out for oncoming cars, but we also post speed limits in school zones."'

RochesterX: Having smoked tobacco for 10 years (and now 20 years smoke-free), I can say first hand that pictures of young people kissing is completely unrealistic with regard to smoking. Even smokers don’t want to kiss smokers.

Geoffrey Cowley: Smokers aren’t the best snow boarders, mountain bikers or singers either, but these ads aren’t selling brand information. They’re selling youthful fantasies.

speakingvet: My parents did as much as they could to stop from me from smoking. At the age of 15 however it didn’t matter to me. In retrospect, I wish I had listened but teenagers aren’t the most rational individuals, even with the best parents.

Geoffrey Cowley: Well said, speakingvet. Like you I had wise, loving parents but spent my teens making insanely bad choices. Adolescence will never be risk-free, but kids' brains are no match for tobacco marketers. They've refined the art of exploiting teenage vulnerabilities, and they have the resources to do it.

Zack Baines: People should have to get a prescription and a license in order to buy tobacco products.

Geoffrey Cowley: Interesting idea, but I fear it would just line the pockets of unprincipled prescription writers.

L78lancer: The WHO should probably take this up as a world wide health issue and lead the charge to draft international law to address this because the cost of health care in low and middle wage countries will escalate over time straining those economies even more. Cigarette companies should be brought before the international courts and held liable for the resulting health costs.

Geoffrey Cowley: The WHO has done yeoman’s work on this issue, and many countries have signed onto its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Unfortunately, every country has to pass its own laws, and the tobacco industry is still a rich, powerful lobby.