Big Tobacco’s bizarre war on cigarettes

Marlboro maker Philip Morris claims there is ‘no reason’ to keep smoking cigarettes.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics UK USA

In April 1991, businessman Gerald Ratner made a speech to the Institute of Directors in London. Ratner’s family owned a highly successful high-street jewellery business. In his speech, he disparaged his own products: ‘We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve you drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?”. I say, “Because it’s total crap”.’ He added that one of the sets of earrings he sold was ‘cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long’. The company’s share price plummeted and Ratner was sacked 18 months later.

The whole affair is a textbook example of the dangers of disparaging your own products and your customers. There are clever ways of doing it – Marmite’s love-it-or-hate-it advertising campaigns rejuvenated an old brand and turned ‘Marmite’ into an adjective in its own right, describing anyone or anything that divides opinion. But slagging off your punters for buying the things you make is generally a stupid idea.

Which brings us to Philip Morris International (PMI), a massive tobacco company that most famously produces Marlboro cigarettes for the world market. PMI and the company it was spun off from, Altria (which sells Marlboro in the US), also make lower-risk ways of consuming nicotine. Most notably, it produces iQOS, a ‘heat-not-burn’ tobacco product. Altria also has a large stake in e-cigarette firm Juul. In recent years, PMI has made headlines by claiming it wants to kill off traditional cigarettes in favour of these less harmful alternatives.

Back in November 2016, when iQOS was being launched, PMI’s chief executive, André Calantzopoulos, told Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I believe that there will come a moment in time where we have sufficient adoption of this alternative product and sufficient awareness to start envisaging – together with governments – a phase-out period for cigarettes.’ In 2018, PMI’s UK managing director, Peter Nixon, told the Independent: ‘The goal is for us to get [smokers] to stop.’ Nixon also told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘There’s no reason why people should smoke anymore.’

Earlier this year, PMI began funding Vice Media (not without controversy) to produce anti-smoking videos and campaigns through Vice’s Change Incorporated project. The most recent campaign includes London Tube adverts telling smokers that, whatever their reasons for smoking, ‘YOUR REASONS AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH’. In short, PMI is disparaging its customers and its own products – just like Ratner, but with less wit. The company is essentially saying: ‘Listen, stupid, we know better than you.’

Such is the bizarre state of affairs around the simple pleasure of enjoying nicotine. PMI’s campaign is odd for a company that still makes most of its money from selling cigarettes and has zero intention of getting out of cigarette manufacturing any time soon. As Nixon told Good Morning Britain, stopping cigarette production is ‘not going to fix the issue’: ‘We have seven-and-a-half million smokers in the UK. Those people are addicted to cigarettes and they’re harmful. What we’re trying to do is provide alternative products.’

So maybe PMI’s campaign funding is just a fairly cynical attempt to flog its new products and duck some of the endless flak tobacco companies face. Maybe PMI is just the latest example of a ‘woke’ corporation, supposedly putting social responsibility before profit.

But its anti-smoking strategy is very much in keeping with other developments in recent years. The good news is that thanks to innovations like e-cigs and heat-not-burn, smokers do now have decent, reduced-risk alternatives to cigarettes. Giving people more choices is always a good thing. But as I note in a new report for Forest, Nicotine Wars: the Fight for Choice, those promoting these alternatives often don’t want to allow choice at all – they want to chuck smokers under the bus.

While smoking is certainly the riskiest means of enjoying nicotine, health-wise, lots of people still prefer it to the alternatives. For one thing, cigarettes are simple to use. E-cigs and iQOS, on the other hand, can be fiddly, with batteries that need to be charged, pods or sticks that need to be inserted, or tanks that need to be filled with liquid. Many wannabe ex-smokers find, to their surprise, that vaping is actually harsher on the lungs than smoking, especially at first. No doubt all of this technology will continue to improve – the success of Juul is testament to its simplicity of use. But millions of people would rather stick to smoking ciggies anyway.

The tone of PMI’s campaign is particularly instructive. It is saying that smokers are wrong, that they have no good reasons to do what they do. Their reasons for smoking are incomprehensible to the great and good, whether it is corporate executives, public-health campaigners, government officials, chattering-class commentators or politicians. The nicotine wars are, in part, a branch of the wider culture wars between the new elites and the great unwashed. We can’t be understood, we can only be controlled, for our own good.

We should be celebrating the freedom that comes with choice. Instead, smokers will have to carry on battling to save what is left of their freedom. And it looks like one big name in Big Tobacco is no longer on the same side as its customers. Let’s hope PMI faces a backlash as big as Gerald Ratner did.

Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Politics UK USA


michael savell

2nd October 2019 at 10:25 pm

I just heard a professor researching brexit(at a huge cost I suppose)stating that 40% of people in the UK are mentally suffering over Brexit.Add that to the number already under the nhs for depression,something like4-5 million and add that to the obesity problem,how many of these people are ex smokers I wonder.When I was born nearly everybody smoked,that was back in the 1930’s,.Did they all die of cancer?Along with those above we have no end of people dying of drugs,including prescription drugs,alcohol and eating problems,not to speak of those who die because they have nowhere to lie their heads.I believe everything can be found in our DNA as to whether we can have an adverse reaction to material things or—=-just maybe smoking can be good for you if the people who make tobacco would stop addng chemicals to the pure stuff.We don’t like drugs which have been “cut”,why give the manufacturers carte blanche and malign the poor old inveterate smoker,Ask a red indian.

Dominic Straiton

2nd October 2019 at 4:02 pm

Booze and fags .Lovely.

Ven Oods

2nd October 2019 at 8:16 am

“Such is the bizarre state of affairs around the simple pleasure of enjoying nicotine.”
While smokers will all attest to the pleasure, the number of smoking-related deaths suggests that ‘simple’ might be the wrong adjective. (I’m an ex-smoker grateful to be “ex-“,’rather than ” late-“.)

Jerry Owen

2nd October 2019 at 1:20 pm

Ven Oods
The argument goes .. my grandmother smoked till she was 88 before dying smoking clearly did her no harm.. but then perhaps if she never smoked she’d have lived till 108 .. in short we’ll never know how much smoking takes off your life if indeed for some it doesn’t .

Jerry Owen

2nd October 2019 at 7:41 am

‘ There’s no reason why people should smoke anymore ‘ well, there is if you enjoy it !
I have never smoked but I defend people’s right to smoke cigarettes. E cigs are far more intrusive than fags as they seem to release a huge amount of smoke with some of the most odious sickly smells.
It was easy to punish Ratner by not buying his goods . But smokers can’t fight back here as not buying fags would be counter productive. So would be interested in how you would advise the fight back

Amin Readh

1st October 2019 at 2:18 am

There is no point to smoking. It is a waste of health and money. This isn’t much of a question of freedom. Gosh! Imagine if you are stopped from smoking! Such dedication to “freedom” is certainly admirable, but foolish.

Andrew Mawdsley

1st October 2019 at 8:18 am

Hi Amin. Agreed. As a smoker of 32 years (recently quit due to Champix, and have never felt better) it is truly a silly, expensive disgusting habit. However, it is legal and as such the people who partake of it should be left alone to “enjoy” the habit. I think that even the most hardened smoker would agree that it isn’t the best habit to have but this constant erosion of personal freedoms must stop.

Jerry Owen

2nd October 2019 at 7:48 am

Andrew Mawdsley
Well done on giving up !
My wife when I first met her was a heavy ( ish ) smoker. Because I was a non smoker she decided to give up , I didn’t ask her to , indeed I made it clear I would not want to interfere .
However the benefits of her giving up were noticeable within a few months . Better complexion, no smokers cough, better sleep, better voice even !
The body can fully recover from smoking .. cancer obviously an exception.

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