Fuhlsbttel airport is a smoky place. Outside customs, a 10-foot
statue of the Marlboro Man appears through the haze. He's neon lit
and sports full cowboy regalia: Stetson, chaps, studs and a lasso
at his hip. A branding-iron font over his head reads, "Taste the
Freedom. Come to Marlboro Country." At first glance, he appears
no different than any of the thousands of twisted promotional images
that fragment our attention spans every day. Here in Hamburg, though,
the Marlboro Man seems strangely out of place, a kitsch icon of
another age. America may have driven the Marlboro Man out of town,
but he's riding high in the rest of the world.
Around 35 percent of German adults smoke. The country has one of
the highest smoking rates in Europe, just behind the two leaders,
Poland and Russia. And Germany's love affair with tobacco and the
Marlboro man doesn't seem to be waning, either. In 1998, the German
Parliament defeated a bill that would have placed heavy restrictions
on cigarette advertising and smoking in public areas and the workplace.
Currently, Germany has no national tobacco control legislation.
When the Berlin Wall crumbled in 1989, Phillip Morris was one of
the first major
players to step in and offer the tired masses its taste of freedom.
Big tobacco's subsequent boost in profits has been based largely on
the ability to expand into the world's poorest and most populous countries
and the know-how to find loopholes in government regulations against
tobacco promotion. This two-pronged approach has allowed tobacco transnationals
to storm through the Eastern Bloc and neighboring Baltic states faster
than the blitzkrieg.
The Marlboro Man is still
in places like the Czech Republic.
In the Czech Republic, for example, Phillip Morris made a successful
$413 billion dollar bid for AS Tabak, the state cigarette monopoly,
gaining a firm hold on sales in Central Europe for decades to come.
This 1992 venture was the largest single U.S. investment in a former
Eastern Bloc country that year. Hamburg-based Reemtsma Tobacco,
No. 4 among the world's major tobacco producers, was right behind
them. Foreign business now accounts for more than 75 percent of
Reemtsma sales, with markets in Asia and Central and Eastern Europe
taking the lion's share. Last year the company's sales outside of
Germany exceeded the 100 billion-cigarette mark for the first time.
Other numbers from the tobacco industry are on the rise as well.
The World Health Organization
(WHO) estimates tobacco use is killing 4 million people a year worldwide.
If left unchecked, the WHO reports the death toll will climb to
10 million annually by the year 2030. Seventy percent of these deaths
will be in developing countries. The WHO also reports that by the
year 2030 tobacco is expected to be the single biggest cause of
death worldwide, outstripping heart disease and HIV by a significant
margin. Despite these figures, Big Tobacco still does not accept
responsibility for the ruined lives its products have caused.
In the United States, the past decade has been a PR nightmare
for Big Tobacco. Growing consumer awareness about the harms of tobacco
addiction and the simultaneous attempt by the tobacco companies
to withhold damaging health-related evidence about their products
resulted in a slew of billion-dollar lawsuits. Particularly damaging
were last year's $145 billion class-action lawsuit in Florida and
Minnesota's $6.1 billion settlement in 1998, which opened thousands
of Phillip Morris documents to public scrutiny.
The subsequent drop in tobacco sales in the United States and government-imposed
restrictions on cigarette advertising have forced Big Tobacco to
assume a different marketing approach. The most visible change has
been their apparent willingness to negotiate. Rather than assuming
the familiar defensive stance about their products, they say they're
ready to support FDA regulations. At Phillip Morris, this about-face
in PR policy includes a $100 million makeover campaign, in which
it's portraying itself as a benign player in the global village
under the guise of Kraft Foods, "corporate citizenship" and its
"Youth Smoking Prevention" program.
Will the makeover work? Ray Rogers, director of the Corporate Campaign
and an expert on consumer boycotts thinks not: "Phillip Morris having
a bad reputation is not news, but the failure of a comprehensive
and expensive public relations campaign to change people's minds
reveals an irreversible credibility problem. It is doubtful that
any PR firm could improve this corporation's image, based on its
horrible record of destroying millions of people's lives, which
it continues to do. Phillip Morris took a gamble by highlighting
its ownership with Kraft and has inspired widespread consumer revolt."
This anti-smoking campaign has now spread beyond U.S. borders.
INFACT, a Boston-based corporate
watchdog, led the effort to form the Network
for Accountability of Tobacco Transnationals (NATT), a network
of some 50 organizations from 30 countries that pushed the WHO to
conduct hearings on the tobacco trade. A WHO panel discovered evidence
of efforts to undermine and subvert international tobacco controls.
They also found that Phillip Morris had been using its Kraft Foods
subsidiary and other branch divisions to influence developing polices
abroad to ban the promotion of tobacco products. Documents revealed
that tobacco companies had been monitoring the WHO for nearly a
quarter century and viewed it as one of their "leading enemies."
This evidence was first made public in the Minnesota lawsuit and
then presented to the WHO in the Zeltner Report, a Swiss investigation
into the tobacco industry's attempts to undermine WHO regulation.
One memo from Phillip Morris CEO Geoffrey Bible cited in the report
states: "[The WHO] has extraordinary influence on government and
consumers and we must find a way to diffuse this and reorient their
activities to their prescribed mandate." Bible goes on to say: "There
is currently a vacancy in the WHO Food Safety Bureau; they are looking
for an industry expert to be 'donated' to the WHO to act as a liaison
with business. If there is someone at Kraft/GF who possesses the
skills, we should consider offering his or her services."
The WHO is now trying to persuade nearly 200 countries to support
the Framework Convention
on Tobacco Control (FCTC), a treaty that would severely limit
tobacco advertising and sponsorship programs in the global marketplace.
It also seeks to give governments more control over the tobacco
industry, in everything from creating alternative agriculture programs
to monitoring all aspects of the industry's activities. "Tobacco
corporations, led by Phillip Morris, have been using their political
influence across the globe to spread addiction and death," says
Lucinda Wykle-Rosenberg, research director for INFACT. "The FCTC
treaty is our best opportunity to put public health before tobacco
While few people envision the billion-dollar litigation suits witnessed
in America over the past few years, many officials hope that some
sort of unified, international policy could be put into place as
soon as 2003. NATT is optimistic about this uphill battle. But according
to a September 2000 article in the Legal Times, the three major
multinational tobacco companies--British American Tobacco, Japan
Tobacco and Phillip Morris--have "taken their case against the treaty
directly to most of the 192 countries involved in drafting the FCTC
Preventable deaths and disease should be cause enough for each
of these countries to take action against Big Tobacco. But tobacco
interests have been ingenious in constructing myths about tobacco's
place in the global marketplace as a tax revenue generator and job
supplier, the sort of things that finance ministers and development
agencies love to hear. Any reduced demand for cigarettes, tobacco
companies argue, would rapidly cause unemployment and revenue loss.
They've argued this point long enough that in many countries it's
accepted as conventional wisdom.
In the former Eastern Bloc, where many countries are still strapped
with severe economic and social problems, turning your back on tobacco
isn't so simple. In Hungary, for example, where 40 percent of adults
smoke, the government is struggling to fund health services strapped
with a 150 percent increase in lung cancer cases among men and a
200 percent increase among women in the past decade. Big Tobacco
has stepped in to fund some heath services because it lends government
and citizens the impression that they are actively working for the
common good. This PR boost may aid Big Tobacco in the coming battle
over restrictions such as the FCTC.
Britain's Guardian recently reported a story about a small
town clinic in Hungary that treated patients for lung cancer and
tobacco-related diseases while also accepting sponsorship from British
American Tobacco, which operated a cigarette factory just down the
street. A similar scenario has occurred in the United States, where
multibillion-dollar settlements with state and federal governments
result in peculiar circumstances. They helped turn tobacco executives
and health advocates into unlikely partners as big tobacco soon
became one of the country's biggest underwriters of smoking-related
Other countries in Eastern Europe have reported the same forms
of so-called "sponsorship," where tobacco firms pose as a kind of
sugar daddy in everything from funding medical research to city
parks. Even Switzerland, Europe's icon of government and social
efficiency, has reported numerous activities in which big tobacco
has thwarted national legislation against advertising. In January,
a report by the WHO and University of California revealed that tobacco
influence-peddling had reached the Swiss hospitality industry as
part of a strategy to thwart measures against smoking in restaurants,
work and public places. Subsequently, a pair of national bills to
ban cigarette advertising were rejected by Swiss voters in 1979
and 1993. The Swiss government has yet to introduce tobacco advertising
bans and smoke-free policies.
Despite all of the PR and political maneuvering, Big Tobacco must
still work hard to attract new customers because so many of the
old ones are dying out. Most of these new recruits are children,
the target group of what one recently released Phillip Morris document
referred to as "replenishment pools." Ninety percent of those who
start smoking are under 20. And while Phillip Morris insists they're
trying to prevent youth smoking, company documents spell out a different
strategy. In one such document, former Phillip Morris senior vice
president Ellen Merlo stated: "If we don't do something fast to
project that sense of industry responsibility regarding the youth
access issue, we're going to be looking at severe marketing restrictions
in a very short time. Those restrictions will pave the way for equally
severe legislation on where adults are allowed to smoke."
Indeed, tobacco companies have developed a sophisticated network
of promotional tools to lure kids into a lifelong habit. In Europe,
they've sponsored Harley-Davidson giveaways and rock concert promotions.
Throughout Germany and Eastern Europe, outdoor cafs and public
parks sport massive umbrellas with Marlboro or West cigarette logos
pasted all over them. Germany's sporting superstar, the three-time
Formula One racing champion Michael Schumacher, is a walking advertisement:
His uniform and car are smeared with the Marlboro logo, top to bottom.
Cinemas have at least 15 minutes of commercials before the feature
film, and tobacco companies have captured the niche market in quick
fashion. The Marlboro Man is still riding in front of snow-capped
mountains in the mythic West before he stops for a cigarette break,
and Joe Camel is still getting his share of babes in the sack. One
of the longest running Player cigarette promotions here shows a
woman reaching orgasm in a restaurant while a man across the room
strokes his cigarette with his forefinger and thumb. The action
comes to a frustrating end when the cigarette accidentally breaks
Big Tobacco claims that its marketing campaigns are not aimed at
minors. For adults, they say, smoking is a matter of individual
choice, and governments shouldn't infringe on this freedom. But
Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, director of the WHO, believes tobacco
companies are directly responsible for the choices young people
are making about smoking. "Tobacco addiction is a disease communicated
through advertising, sports, marketing and sponsorship," she insists.
"This is not free choice at all."
Tom Washington is a freelance writer based in Hamburg.