The first time I ever smoked a cigarette, I was in fifth grade, at a sleepover. My friend stole a Marlboro from her mother’s purse and eight of us girls put it up to our lips in her back yard in the middle of the night. By the time I reached high school, some of my friends had already gotten hooked. They showed off by puffing smoke rings and pointing out subliminal pictures hidden on a pack of Camel Lights.
But in recent years, the coolness of smoking has faded away, in one of the most profound cultural changes of our generation. Today, only 19 percent of Americans smoke, compared to 42 percent in 1965, when the surgeon general declared the habit deadly.
The change was driven by successful lawsuits — as well as high taxes on cigarettes and bans on lighting up in public places. So it’s ironic that an industry crippled by lawsuits in the United States is using that very same tactic to its advantage in the rest of the world.
But before I get to that, let me set the stage: After a massive tobacco settlement came down in 1998, requiring tobacco companies to curb advertising and to pay more than $200 billion, the industry knew its business model in the United States was on life support. Its most faithful customers were dying, at a rate of nearly half a million a year. Replacing them with new customers was becoming harder than ever. So Philip Morris — the largest international producer of cigarettes — spun off a portion of its business to focus on the industry’s best hope for staying alive: the international market.
Today, about 80 percent of the world’s smokers live in low- and middle-income countries — places that can ill afford the health costs of the habit. Philip Morris International (PMI) has sponsored music concerts in Argentina, sporting events in Indonesia, and Marlboro Man billboards in Macedonia and Ethiopia. In Russia, PMI markets slim cigarettes for ladies in pink, perfume-style boxes. Now the company has its eyes on the prize: China, home to some 300 million smokers.
And it’s working. Earlier this month, PMI reported profits for the first quarter had risen 13 percent, as falling growth in Europe was offset by a strong demand in Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and Latin America.
Marlboros are the best selling cigarettes in the world. To keep them so popular, PMI has used an aggressive tactic: lawsuits.
When Australia became the first country to mandate plain packaging for cigarettes, Philip Morris-Asia sued Australia under a bilaterial trade agreement with China.
When Norway banned cigarette displays in stores, PMI’s local affiliate sued them, too. When Uruguay launched one of the most vigorous anti-smoking campaigns in Latin America, PMI filed suit at a World Bank affiliate in Washington, DC, seeking a reversal of the law and an undisclosed amount of compensation.
Anne Edwards, director of external communications for PMI, said Uruguay had simply gone too far by limiting the choice of brands and mandating that 80 percent of a cigarette pack be covered with health warnings. Edwards says the company believes in health warnings on packages, and restricting advertisements to kids, but that Uruguay’s law goes beyond the pale.
Anti-smoking advocates see the lawsuit against Uruguay as a way of intimidating other countries from following suit. “We call it intimidation by litigation,” said Gigi Kellett, director of the anti-tobacco efforts at Corporate Accountability International.
Luckily for Uruguay, a number of allies have stepped in to help. The World Health Organization, which promoted a global anti-tobacco treaty that 173 countries have ratified, has issued strong statements in support. And New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic foundation is helping Uruguay pay legal bills to fight PMI. “There is a commitment to see Uruguay win,” said Dr. Kelly Henning, director of public health programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies. “We don’t want countries to think they can’t put in place measures to protect their citizens against the harms of tobacco.”
It is fitting that America, birthplace of the Marlboro Man, is helping other countries kick the habit.
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