Tobacco has been a powerful industry in Virginia since the days of the Jamestown colony. It is no less influential today as Henrico County-based Philip Morris USA and its parent firm, Altria, play shell games about the hazards of their products.
Just before Christmas, and right in time for the 2012 election year, Altria trotted out a new Web site called “Citizens for Tobacco Rights” that seems designed to tap some of the anti-government, anti-regulation fervor of the Tea Party movement to boost its top line.
The company says that it is offering the Web site so smokers know their rights. It has a smorgasbord of information about taxation, local and state laws limiting smoking, and other government efforts to restrict tobacco use, which is one of the largest health issues in the United States and kills a about 400,000 every year.
Yet what makes this Web site peculiar is that it goes against the low profile that Philip Morris has generally been keeping since it was one of four cigarette makers dunned for $206 billion by 46 states in 1998 because of health risks.
In 2008, the firm split itself into two parts. Philip Morris International, based on Lausanne, Switzerland, was free to make cigarettes with much higher levels of the addictive nicotine and tar content as ones made in the United States and market them vigorously in some Third World countries, where smokers are less likely to understand the link between smoking and cancer, lung disease and other ailments.
Philip Morris USA, on the other hand, took a far more benign approach, and from its new headquarters in Richmond, clung to a gradually diminishing base of smokers while telling them they really shouldn’t smoke. As the company states on its Web site: “PM USA agrees with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers. Smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases, like lung cancer, than non-smokers. There is no safe cigarette.”
The statement is on one part of the corporate Web site. For an entirely different view, however, click on the new “Citizens for Tobacco Rights” page on another part. One gets the impression that ordinary cigarette users are having their God-given rights trampled upon by nefarious do-gooders and government regulators. Let’s wave the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Invite Sarah Palin to speak!
One can only speculate as to why Altria is trying this gambit at this particular moment. An obvious possibility is that the firm’s propagandists want to tap Tea Party sentiment to boost sales. In 2010, the firm reported net revenue of $24.3 billon, a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year.
The firm complains that it has been under heavy pressure since federal excise taxes were boosted in the late 1990s, and many states and localities have banned cigarette smoking in public places. One is New York City, from which Altria retreated its headquarters to Richmond. Another reason for the Web page could be that it’s been a long time since the 1998 health settlement. People tend to forget.
In Virginia, Altria is considered a sacred cow. It employs about 6,000 people and is one of the leading donors to universities, the arts and research. Its impact is especially strong in Richmond, where it operates its last large cigarette manufacturing plant in the country and funds everything from chairs at Virginia Commonwealth University to the Richmond Symphony.
Don’t think that the largesse doesn’t come without strings, though. When an artist wanted 400,000 cigarettes for a piece of artwork that was to be displayed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Philip Morris said no even though it is a major sponsor of the museum. VMFA public relations people were careful to play down the issue.
The new Web site underlines, once again, the hypocrisy and contradictions of Philip Morris USA and Altria. Its ploy to encourage people to stand up for their rights while warning them its products kill go beyond routine cynicism. And as it has since 1609, Virginia plays along.