Smoking Out Big Tobacco

We know all these things: Cigarettes are extraordinarily dangerous. Smoking causes lung cancer and other deadly diseases. The nicotine in cigarettes is as addictive as heroin or cocaine. The high national smoking rate is a result of misinformation and coercion tactics levied at us by huge tobacco corporations. These are facts made available to the American public at large, and yet we continue to throw away millions of dollars each year, to sacrifice our lungs and larynxes and thyroids. We keep smoking.

In 1993, when I was fourteen years old -- the average age at which kids become hooked on cigarettes -- the facts about the dangers of tobacco splashed into the media spotlight again. It was then that a group called INFACT launched their Tobacco Industry Campaign.

As stated on their web site,, INFACT is "a national grassroots organization whose purpose is to stop life-threatening abuses by transnational corporations and increase their accountability to people around the world." Known for their campaigns against Nestle in 1977 and nuclear weaponry in 1984, INFACT's hope is that through the Tobacco Industry Campaign "consumers and health advocates are challenging Philip Morris to stop addicting new young customers around the world, and to stop manipulating public policy in the interest of tobacco profits."

Today, INFACT is renewing its fight against big tobacco with the recently released documentary, "Making a Killing: Philip Morris, Kraft and Global Tobacco Addiction." Produced and directed by award-winning filmmakers Kelly Anderson and Tami Gold, the documentary explores the history and current trends of youth-targeted cigarette promotion. It exposes the plans of the American tobacco industry, which is losing ground on its home turf, to move in on kids in developing countries.

INFACT hopes that the film will build support for the anti-tobacco campaign, and for a Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an international treaty initiated by the World Health Organization to put more binding controls on international tobacco corporations, especially around the sales of cigarettes to kids.

Get 'Em While They're Young

Cigarette companies have targeted young people from the very beginning. In 1998, when corporations like Philip Morris were forced to turn over their internal documents, it was revealed that in the 1950s they had conducted research in collaboration with local schools to identify potential long-term smokers at as young as eight years old. As the film explains, children were seen as annuities. If they were hooked at young ages they would buy cigarettes "until, of course, they died." A striking backdrop is footage from the closing credits of an early Flintstones cartoon show in which Fred and Wilma Flintstone enjoy cigarettes together and an announcer's voice informs us that "the Flintstones have been brought to you by Winstons."

In a related campaign, teenagers were (and are) targeted not by cartoons, but by the Marlboro Man, described by Jack Landry -- his creator -- as "the right image to capture the youth market's fancy...a perfect symbol of independence and individualistic rebellion." Now I personally don't find the cowboy hat-wearing, horseback riding, cigarette smoking Marlboro Man very inspiring, but I seem to be in a great minority. According to Making a Killing, with the entrance of the Marlboro Man and his extensive coverage on televisions and billboards across the country and around the world, by 1972 Marlboros were the leading brand of cigarettes. Philip Morris, their manufacturer, quickly became the largest and most wealthy tobacco corporation.

Hiding Behind the "Family Friendly" Screen

In the 1980s, as scientists and consumers began to learn what tobacco corporations had known for years -- that cigarettes are addictive and deadly -- tobacco businesses began using political clout in the form of campaign donations to influence legislation around cigarette advertising and sales. But, as the truth about tobacco became more widely talked about, politicians became reluctant to take tobacco donations to their campaigns. Corporations, notably Philip Morris, solved the politicians' dilemma by buying up manufacturing companies of "wholesome" foods. Kraft (makers of the familiar blue boxes of Macaroni and Cheese) and Jell-O are among the food companies that are subsidiaries of Philip Morris. As U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett says in Making a Killing, "if Philip Morris can give through Kraft, there's plausible deniability for a candidate for office that they didn't take money from the folks at Philip Morris -- they were taking Kraft Cheese money."

Making a Killing shows that Philip Morris has also used its ties to companies like Kraft as a means of bolstering its image through the family friendly foods it manufactures, and through heavily advertised public works programs sponsored by companies that include Post Grape Nuts and Maxwell House Coffee, two more Philip Morris subsidiaries. Philip Morris has even launched a campaign allegedly to stop youth from smoking. However, a clip from one of the company's anti-smoking ads aimed at teens, shown in Making a Killing, seems to do more to glamorize smoking as a form of rebellion than to discourage tobacco use. Recent studies have shown this also.

Philip Morris' image makeover tactics have worked to a certain extent, but with recent lawsuits, aggressively generated publicity about the dangers of tobacco, and the INFACT-led anti-tobacco campaign, tobacco companies are finding themselves in a precarious position in the U.S. They have thus turned their sights and their reach to young people in other nations.

The Marlboro Man Goes Global

The World Health Organization estimates that 3.5 million people die from tobacco-related illness each year. They project that if the current trends continue, 10 million people will die each year by 2030, and that 70 percent of those deaths will be in economically challenged countries.

Philip Morris and other tobacco distributors seem to be doing everything in their power to see to it that current trends will indeed continue. In many countries targeted by the tobacco industry, cigarette advertising is illegal. But manufacturers of cigarettes have found ways of circumventing the law by distributing clothing and other novelty items marked with tobacco brand name logos, and by distributing free samples of cigarettes, defining the distribution as "promotional activity," not as advertising.

Mary Assunta, a consumer rights advocate with the Consumers Association of Penang in Malaysia who is interviewed in Making a Killing, states the situation very clearly. She says, "the American citizens have been quite effective in chasing out the Marlboro Man from Marlboro Country, but unfortunately he's riding into the markets of Asia."

Making a Killing depicts striking examples of Philip Morris' "promotional activity" in other countries, with footage of "cigarette girls," young women in countries like Japan and the Czech Republic hired to distribute free samples of Philip Morris-manufactured cigarettes to young people. Often, if a young target accepts a light to that free cigarette, they will receive more free merchandise like sunglasses, most certainly complete with a Philip Morris related logo. Assunta points out, "its very hard for the boys to say no to the pretty girls."

And indeed, it seems clear that it's very hard for anyone, especially a young person, to say no. INFACT asserts that in Hong Kong children are addicted to cigarettes at as young as seven years old. One year after U.S. companies like Philip Morris entered the tobacco market in Korea, smoking rates among teenage boys had risen from 18 percent to 30 percent. Among teenage girls it went up from less than two percent to nine percent.

There is yet another important component of Philip Morris' power in other nations, especially in developing nations, that the corporation doesn't even have to pay for. That is the American Dream. Kenyan physician Paul Wangai explains, "many African children have two hopes. One is to go to heaven, the other to America. U.S. tobacco companies capitalize on this by associating smoking with affluence. It's not uncommon to hear children say they start because of the glamorous lifestyle associated with smoking."

INFACT Fights Back

In the light of these sleazy practices, INFACT launched its current boycott, hoping the tobacco corporations will concede to their four central demands:

1. Stop tobacco marketing and promotion that appeals to children and young people;

2. Stop spreading tobacco addiction internationally;

3. Stop influence over, and interference in, public policy on issues of tobacco and health;

4. Pay the costs of health care associated with the "tobacco epidemic."

When the Tobacco Industry Campaign began, its major targets were Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco (manufacturers of Camel Cigarettes and Oreo Cookies), the two largest tobacco corporations in the world. Since then, in a huge victory for the Campaign, Nabisco has terminated its affiliation with RJ Reynolds as a result of the Boycott. (Unfortunately, Nabisco is currently considering a new merger with Philip Morris, putting the company in position to be placed back on the boycott list).

At this point, INFACT has built an anti-tobacco network that consists of more than fifty human rights, faith-based, corporate accountability and environmental groups in more than thirty countries. Many of the organizations involved have screened Making a Killing publicly and are continuing to publicize it and spread its message.

College students -- my generation -- have also been lending a hand. Making a Killing has been screened recently at the University of Southern California, Hunter College, and American University, among others. For a demographic that has given enormous sums of money to tobacco corporations, to be making themselves heard in the campaign against tobacco is an important step.

Also, according to Patricia Lynn, National Outreach Director of INFACT, students on campuses like Howard University and Rutgers University have been organizing opposition to recruitment sessions run by Philip Morris and Nabisco. Lynn explains, "counter-recruitment actions are very powerful, because they send the message to the corporation that if they continue to engage in abusive, life-threatening practices, they will not have access to the best and brightest new recruits. That is one of many factors that shift the cost benefit ratio for corporations like Philip Morris." Given that the future success of tobacco rests on the addiction of future generations, student support of the boycott is invaluable.

Both the film and INFACT's boycott offer concrete opportunities for American citizens to get involved in the anti-smoking movement. As Lynn says, "by building support for the Kraft Boycott, U.S. consumers can increase the direct pressure on one of the world's deadliest corporations -- Philip Morris." Even if large numbers of adults in this country hear the warnings and continue to smoke, perhaps the message of INFACT's boycott and Making a Killing -- that the world's children must be protected -- will cause enough people listen to make a difference.

For the sake of my generation, and the generations following, I certainly hope so. My ten-year-old sister may have put it best when she said, "people who smoke are just dorks. And people who sell cigarettes are even dorkier."

Olivia Greer, 20, formerly wrote for AlterNet's youth magazine, WireTap, about the Ralph Nader super-rally in New York City.

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