George V. Comfort, Robert E.R. Huntley, William H. Donaldson and Margaret B. Young are all paid directors of life insurance companies that judge cigarette smoking to be a health hazard--one so serious that they give discounts to policyholders who don't smoke.
Comfort, Huntley, Donaldson and Young also get at least $20,000 a year each as board members of Philip Morris Inc., the giant international cigarette company, which will take up a smoking-and-health issue today at its annual stockholders' meeting in Richmond.
Philip Morris' advice to consumers runs contrary to that of the insurance companies. It doesn't say that smoking is healthful, but it does say it is fun and contends that the statistics associating smoking with lung cancer and other afflictions are inconclusive.
"No conclusive clinical or medical proof of any cause-and-effect relationship between cigarette smoking and disease has been discovered," a unanimous board says in the notice for its annual meeting.
No one questions that a corporate director who serves a prosmoking and an antismoking enterprise at the same time can be fulfilling the director's legal obligation to each company--to be influenced by no consideration other than its welfare. But is there a philosophical bind?
Not for George Comfort, a New York City real estate management executive, or for Robert Huntley, president of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Comfort, 67, a director of Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York, says, "The main reason I'm on these boards is the real estate expertise I bring" to them. Beyond that, he says, "I'd rather not comment--for your readers."
Huntley, 52, says, "I really don't" have a problem reconciling being a director of Philip Morris and of Shenandoah Life Insurance Co., adding, "I don't think that every corporation that I'm associated with has to agree in every way." He upholds Philip Morris' stand on smoking and disease. "I think that's a true statement," says Huntley, and a two-pack-a-day smoker (Philip Morris' Marlboros).
Two other outside directors, John S. Reed and H. Robert Marschalk, are trustees of medical institutions led by doctors who embrace the conventional medical wisdom: More and more statistical correlations over the years have nailed down a cause-effect relation between smoking and disease.
Reed, 42, a senior executive vice president of Citicorp in New York City, says he became a trustee of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center "after I made very clear who they were asking"--a member of the board of a cigarette company. To Philip Morris' board, he says, he brings "some realism from the outside world;" to Sloan-Kettering's, "some of the realism of the cigarette world."
The center's top physician, Dr. Edward J. Beattie Jr., terms Philip Morris' position on smoking and disease "misleading" despite the admitted lack of the "clinical and medical proof" cited by the company.
"What we do have, and what Philip Morris does not state, is that we have . . . an epidemic of cancer that occurs many times more frequently in cigarette smokers than in nonsmokers," Beattie says. "Clearly, cigarette smoking has a disastrous influence on United States cancer statistics, to say nothing of its disastrous effect on heart disease and blood-vessel disease."
Reed, told of Beattie's view, acknowledged "a tension, but not an uncomfortable one," in being on the boards of the center and of Philip Morris. "It's not an issue that I worry an awful lot about," he added.
Marschalk, 66, a retired vice chairman of Richardson-Vicks Inc., a drug company, is on the board of overseers of Dartmouth Medical School. Dean Robert W. McCollum also rejects Philip Morris' denial of "conclusive clinical or medical proof."
"I don't know what they mean by 'conclusive,' " McCollum says. "It is conclusive enough for me and thousands of others."
Serving on the Philip Morris and Dartmouth boards "doesn't bother me," Marschalk said. Why? he was asked. "Simply because it doesn't bother me," he replied. "I see no anomaly."
At least three of Philip Morris' outside directors don't smoke, although they insist that health considerations are not involved. They are Reed, Marschalk and T. Justin Moore Jr., 56, chairman and chief executive officer of Virginia Electric Power Co.
Moore hasn't smoked since World War II, saying, "I just plain stopped." He says that Philip Morris' products--cigarettes, beer and soft drinks--provide many people with "a few of the joys left in life." In 1981, tobacco accounted for 90 percent of the firm's operating profit of $1.37 billion. Moore terms smoking "sort of basic to the economy of Virginia."
Reed says he's "never had the desire to smoke." He volunteered that his father, a smoker, died of lung cancer. Marschalk says he stopped smoking in 1950, when, he recalls, he was having "heavy colds. My doctor thought I might be allergic to smoking, whatever that means."
The statistical associations of smoking with disease that convinced the surgeons general, among others, of a causal relationship, impress John Reed--up to a point. "If I were a doctor, I would be forced to say, 'Hey, statistically, something is going on,' " he says. "If there were a street around my house where there were a lot of accidents, I'd certainly warn my kids to be careful."
But Reed says he does not believe that the statistics suffice to incriminate smoking and stresses his view of it as a matter of "personal choice"--particularly for Americans who are aware of the possible risks. Moore, saying that "I stand by" the Philip Morris position on smoking and disease, explains, "I don't think a cause-effect connection has been demonstrated." Similarly, Marschalk derided evidence that is "all statistical," saying, "The great, great majority of smokers never get lung cancer."
At today's meeting in Richmond, stockholders will vote on a proposal--by a religious group that owns a handful of shares--to curb promotion of the company's cigarette sales in the Third World on health grounds. Outside the United States, where it ranks second, it is the largest U.S.-based cigarette company. In 1981, the 249.4 billion cigarettes it sold abroad--under 160 brand names--accounted for 6.4 percent of the total of 3.9 trillion and was up 11 billion (4.6 percent) from 1980. The Philip Morris International unit, setting all-time records, had operating revenues of $373 billion (up 6.18 percent) and operating income of more than $900 million (up 13.58 percent).
Two other outside directors, Jane Evans, 37, executive vice president for consumer products of General Mills Inc. in New York, and Alfred Brittain III, 59, board chairman of Bankers Trust Co., also in New York, declined to be interviewed. Evans said: "I don't feel that this is something that I would like to talk about. So I would like to have a 'no comment.' Okay?" Brittain said: "I really don't want to discuss something like this. It's really not my place to do so. I'm sorry."
A reporter's phone calls were not returned by Margaret Young, widow of civil rights leader Whitney B. Young Jr. and a director of the New York Life Insurance Co. William Donaldson--chairman of Donaldson Enterprises management firm, a former undersecretary of State and a director of Aetna Life and Casualty Co.--could not be reached.