Ann Seibert would rather fight than switch. Two years ago, when the Philip Morris Co. delivered dozens of Virginia Slims appointment date books to the State House in Montpelier promoting the canard that cigarette smoking somehow is indicative of liberated women, the Vermont legislator collected them and shipped them back. When no calendars arrived a year later, Seibert figured Philip Morris got the message.
She was wrong. As Seibert approached her State House desk one day last January, she was stunned to find a 1990 Virginia Slims date book, and a large poster picturing the Bill of Rights with "Philip Morris" prominently inscribed across the bottom. Other desks had them, too.
"I objected to them because I thought they were demeaning to women," Seibert says of the date books that featured one shapely young woman in a bikini bottom and a T-shirt bearing the 'You've Come a Long Way, Baby' slogan. All the women pictured are attractive, fashionably dressed, slim and trim -- and smoking cigarettes.
The promotion troubled Seibert for another reason -- ethics. "At a time when lung cancer is surpassing breast cancer in this country," she says, "it is really inappropriate for legislators who are dealing with health care and health-care costs to accept these date books from a cigarette company."
In a tough-worded letter to the Philip Morris brass, Seibert detailed what she and 65 colleagues did with the promotions. "We distributed them to teachers in the state who would use them to teach students about addiction and substance abuse, and about media manipulation and gender bias," she says. The Bill of Rights posters would be passed out to Vermont schools for display "once they cut the Philip Morris name from where it defaces the replica of this historical document."
It's hardball season in Marlboro Country. If Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis W. Sullivan is the most outspoken critic of the tobacco companies lately -- they "trade death for corporate profits" and their charitable support is "blood money" -- he's hardly alone in escalating the offensive to higher ground, from smoke to ethics, from cigarettes to conscience.
Like Ann Seibert, an increasing number of anti-smoking activists and ordinary citizens are starting to see the giants of the tobacco industry and their marketing strategies as the targets rather than cigarettes. As conventional perception of smoking changes from bad habit to lethal addiction, so does the image of those who promote it, who hand out free samples on street corners, who market to children and minorities. Columnist Michael Kinsley called it "the next thunderclap" in moral perception: "Soon, I suspect, we will look back on the past 26 years with puzzlement. How could we have acknowledged the harm smoking does, and yet lived so comfortably with that knowledge? ... What will seem incredible is the relative absence of stigma associated with the production and peddling of tobacco products."
Where There's Smoke ...
The World Health Organization estimates that smoking is responsible for 2.5 million deaths worldwide each year. In the United States, almost 400,000 people die annually of diseases directly related to smoking. A third of all cancer deaths, a third of all heart disease deaths, 90 percent of all deaths from chronic lung disease, are smokers. When Henry Everett starts talking about smoking, gloomy statistics soon follow.
"Cigarette smoking is the single most preventable cause of death and disease," says the New York activist who is president of the investment firm Lexington Associates. With his wife, Edith Everett, they have spent money and energy on causes ranging from the homeless to education. But cigarette companies particularly gag them with moral indignation. "The 400,000 people who die -- that's like two jumbo jets crashing and killing everybody on board every day over a year," says Everett. "The death quotient is very high ... and yet, to this day, there isn't a single board member of the tobacco companies that admits it."
For the past year, Everett has had one such board member on his mind -- namely, Lester Pollack, a highly regarded New York businessman, a leader in the Jewish community there, who recently was named president of the Jewish Welfare Board (now the JCC Associates of North America). Pollack is also on the board of directors of Loews Corp., which wholly owns Lorillard Corp., the manufacturer of True, Newport and Kent, a company that sells an estimated $2 billion in cigarettes annually.
"I've asked him, 'Lester, why does a nice fellow like you want to be involved with such a terrible industry?' " says Everett, a JCC board member. He makes it clear he has nothing against Pollack personally. But he can't understand how an organization committed to curtailing smoking among young people, that operates some 270 community centers where smoking is prohibited, that assists people who've been victimized by health problems, can accept someone from the tobacco industry as its president. "What if the Partnership for the Homeless said that its president would be a slumlord? Wouldn't people be upset?" asks Everett.
Everett's letter-writing campaign to stop Pollack's nomination failed to convince JCC officials. He asked Pollack to resign his Loews seat before taking charge. Pollack refused. Instead, Pollack defers "to the decision of the JCC board" rather than discuss Everett's charges. "I think there are other places besides the JCC board where Mr. Everett would be better off making his point," he says.
With Pollack's JCC presidency a fait accompli, Everett refuses to abort his campaign to mount pressure from Jewish leaders and anti-smoking activists. He hopes Pollack may yet become the first tobacco company exec to resign from the cigarette trade for reasons of conscience. "I thought it would be an open-and-shut issue," he says. "Evidently, I've been wrong."
A Long Way, Baby
The day Nelson Mandela was set free in South Africa, as U.S. network television cameras focused on the prison gates, Philip Morris's advertising agents were pressuring networks to run the company's "Bill of Rights" commercials adjacent to the news coverage. "As Nelson Mandela Walks Free, the Marlboro Man Rides In" is how the trade publication ADWEEK headlined its story of the incident.
Almost as soon as the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe, Philip Morris was in Warsaw donating fax machines and computers to Lech Walesa. The Polish hero was later upset to learn that his picture and words had been used in a controversial Philip Morris "Bill of Rights" ad promoting freedom -- and implicitly the freedom to smoke. Walesa is an ex-smoker.
Michael Pertschuk likens the ploy to a law school adage. "The lawyers juggled the oranges and apples so skillfully that the judge never saw the elephant walk by," says the co-director of the Advocacy Institute, a nonprofit group based in the District that counsels public-interest groups. "That's what the cigarette industry is doing. They support the arts, they put themselves on the side of civil-rights advocates, they do all these good works so that nobody will notice the monstrosity of what they're doing."
But Pertschuk is convinced taking such liberties will be more difficult because public understanding of cigarette company treachery has come a long way. "When the evidence came in on tobacco 25 years ago, there was really a cultural disassociation," says Pertschuk. " ... The first question people considered was should I quit smoking? Then it was, should I stop blowing smoke in someone else's face? In the past couple of years, smoking is being thought of as a public-health issue with the tobacco industry the villain."
Acting as a forum for anti-smoking efforts, the Advocacy Institute wants to make that image as commonplace as Camel's camel. "The basic goal is to enable the public to view the tobacco problems as a major public-health problem and a drug problem, and to view anyone who tends to encourage or promote tobacco use as no better than drug pushers," says Pertschuk.
Last year, when New York University announced that it would rename its University Hospital The Tisch Hospital, in recognition of $30 million donated to the university's medical center by Larry Tisch and Preston Robert Tisch, William Cahan was outraged. Through ownership of the Loews Corp., the Tisch brothers own Lorillard, the tobacco company. A senior attending surgeon specializing in lung cancer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, Cahan found it morally repugnant. "Surely, such an action raises questions as to the propriety of accepting funds from individuals ... whose wealth was, and is being, amassed at the expense of our country's health," he protested to NYU president John Brademas. "My guess is that at least one out of six adult patients at University Hospital ... are there because they smoked."
Cahan doesn't condone the name change, but it doesn't surprise him either. The surgeon, who refers to his operating room at Sloan-Kettering as "Marlboro Country," says, "I'm not very perplexed about why they did it when I hear the words $30 million. But it's just the tip of the iceberg."
The doctor was "horrified," he says, when he heard of the American Ballet Theatre's partnership with Philip Morris that brought the dance company "a very substantial figure" in cash and advertising over two years. And he was critical of the Anti-Defamation League for honoring Philip Morris chairman Hamish Maxwell with its "civic commitment award" in April. The excuse nonprofit groups that accept funding from cigarette companies give -- "that these are legal companies, that their particular organization would have a heck of a time surviving if they didn't receive that support," says Cahan -- no longer makes sense. "My rejoinder to that: This is an immoral act. The Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazi organizations wave the banner of legality, but we cannot think of them as moral groups ... These companies kill. They seduce. They want to kill more. They are interested in the big bucks and the hell with everything else."
Cahan and other critics aren't dispassionate, however, about the needs of nonprofit groups. "It's a dilemma," admits Angela Mickel, director of Tobacco-Free America, a legislative clearinghouse in the District. "Some people say we're going to take it because we can't get it anywhere else. Some of these very worthy causes, they wouldn't be able to stay alive ... But there's got to be other companies, other ways, other foundations, who will give the money."
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, who coined the term "innocence by association" to describe how tobacco companies buy respectability through such good deeds, believes public perception is catching up with public relations. "I think a large segment of the population raises its eyebrows when it sees the tobacco industry is sponsoring a sports event or an organization," he says. "More and more, groups will be careful or desperate before they accept tobacco industry funds."
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Brad Krevor knew he had a problem when he promised his son who is allergic to smoke that he'd stop smoking -- and two days later he was smoking again. Through an anti-smoking program, he kicked his 20-year habit seven years ago. He's been kicking the tobacco industry since.
"Smokers are not the bad guys; they're the victims," says Krevor, now the executive director of the Group Against Smoking Pollution (GASP), based in Boston. "The whole lie in the industry is it is a legal behavior freely chosen by mature people ... It is not an adult behavior freely chosen. You begin as a child, you get addicted as a child, and you carry addiction into your maturity. How many adults do you know who pick up cigarettes for the first time?"
In May, Krevor announced the formation of the Tobacco Divestment Project, which defines funding and profits from tobacco companies as "tainted money" whose source is the addiction of more than 50 million Americans. "We are saying we won't be part of it," he says. "We won't be the shareholders in the purveyors of an addictive and lethal drug. It is immoral to profit from disease."
In recent months, Harvard University, the State of Massachusetts and the City University of New York have announced their intention to divest their investments in tobacco companies. Other universities, states and religious organizations will follow, says Krevor. "As people recognize that that handsome dividend from Philip Morris stock is directly tied to those teenagers who are picking up cigarettes, then maybe we can break the cycle."
Got a Match?
Do the largely unpublicized actions of a Henry Everett or an Ann Seibert make a dent in the polished veneer of the tobacco industry? Larry White thinks so. "I think the tobacco companies are worried," says the author of "Merchants of Death: The American Tobacco Industry," a 1988 book that exposed unethical tactics of some cigarette companies. "All of these contribute to the environment. All of these are aiming at making those who make cigarettes feel like the outcasts of society, which they really are. These are the pariahs. They are not worried by the Henry Everetts of the world. But they are worried about the accumulation of all of us who are yelling, pushing and shoving."
The Tobacco Response
The tobacco industry has consistently maintained that there is no conclusive evidence that cigarette smoking damages health or causes disease -- despite scientific studies and the surgeon general's warnings to the contrary. Asked to respond to charges in this story, Tobacco Institute vice president Walker Merryman didn't veer from that course:
"I don't believe there is another public issue that is as well understood by people in this country than the smoking health issue ... There is almost universal awareness. It is so clearly understood, it seems to me, that any adult has the right to make his or her own choice, to decide if the possible risk involved is acceptable to him, same way we make decisions about a wide variety of things that contain some risk."
Reminded that tobacco company executives don't seem to share in that universal awareness, Merryman had no answer. Asked if he thought smoking was a health hazard, he replied: "I don't know that to be a fact."
Merryman did say that to describe tobacco companies as "pariahs who immorally promote the use of an addictive substance that causes disease and death" was "reprehensible rhetoric ... used to pump up the troops." But since cigarette companies manufacture "a product which is perfectly legal and there are some 60 million people in this country who are their customers," he added, "the companies have every right to communicate with their customers and ... defend their freedom of choice."
He dismissed charges that the tobacco industry's philanthropic deeds are attempts at "innocence by association," suggesting that was evidence of critics' "myopic view of the industry's contribution to our culture and society."