Philip Morris CEO's Big Gaffe -- Claims Quitting Is Easy

At shareholder meeting, Louis Camilleri tells the crowd, "Nevertheless, whilst it [tobacco] is addictive, it's not that hard to quit."

It can't be easy being CEO of one of the world's largest publicly traded multinationals, especially when your product is crazy toxic and contributes to human misery the world over. Like Aaron Eckhart's fictional character from the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking, you'd better be able to look folks in the eye and tell whoppers if you plan on keeping your somewhere north of 20-mill job and cush retirement.

But in a twist of life imitating art, Philip Morris CEO Louis Camilleri at a shareholder meeting in May suggested that quitting the butt really ain't no 'thang.

Taking heat from an anti-smoking activist in the crowd, Camilleri defended Big Tobacco as being proactive in pointing out the obvious health risks. But instead of leaving it at the usual party line, the guy overreached big time when he said that "Nevertheless, whilst it [tobacco] is addictive, it's not that hard to quit"

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Now, I'm not exactly versed in the world of big business damage control, but I'm thinking that Corporate was on Line One about fifteen minutes after their esteemed CEO's Italian loafers hit the office rug.

Corporate callousness is hardly news, but unless we're talking West Virginia coal operators it's usually more calculated and nuanced than this. Even the Wall Street Journal ran with it.

Camilleri's gaff made the news cycle at least in part because millions of us know better. We've lost or are in the process of losing someone to smoking-related diseases - someone who at some point rued starting and desperately tried to stop. We've lost our dad or our golfing buddy or the fellow recovering addict who could put down every damn thing but the smokes.

But hey, it's not that hard to quit.

Over the last 25 years I've buried dozens of smokers. I've known homeless 'Nam vets who would buy cigarettes ahead of a decent meal. Middle school athletes who could barely run wind sprints because they were already half-pack-a-day smokers. So it wasn't just our intelligence that was insulted: it was the memory of those gone too soon.

If there's an upside to this world-class faux pas it's that even in a nation ravaged by runaway capitalism, with big money and influence come greater scrutiny and accountability. And if anybody deserves a good shot of scrutiny and accountability right now, it's Philip Morris International.

PMI (a.k.a. Altria) is a gargantuan enterprise. Not only does it own 7 of the world's top 15 cigarette brands; under the auspices of Kraft Foods, its non-tobacco holdings include everything from cookies to Cool Whip, coffee to Cadbury. (For a full list go to kraftfoodscompany.com and search for "brands.")

But even the biggest capitalist venture is vulnerable to at least one thing: boycotts. And that's what we ought to do here. Print out the list of what not to buy, folks. Spread the word. And let both PMI and your grocer know why you're doing what you're doing.

Passing on the Wheat Thins will not bring my parishioners back. And giving up the Oreos will not extend my ailing family member's life. But quitting Philip Morris is a moral decision wrapped in an economic protest.

And it's not that hard.


Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email [email protected].