Amid a global health crisis, Philip Morris International (PMI) will virtually gather shareholders on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, to applaud the corporation’s continued efforts to rebrand itself as ‘smoke-free.’ PMI’s annual meeting was preempted by tobacco control advocates Tuesday, who exposed that while PMI would have the world believe it is changing, it’s still using the same tactics to profit from death and addiction.
PMI, one of the world’s largest publicly traded tobacco corporations, has spent the last three years and billions of dollars on a public relations campaign for its new identity as ‘smoke-free.’ The campaign, which goes far beyond typical corporate PR, includes bankrolling the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and launching a life insurance company under PMI’s corporate umbrella. The rebranding effort has largely been dismissed as a ploy to sell PMI’s newest tobacco product, iQOS, and to insert itself into public health policy making.
Dr. Adriana Blanco Marquizo, Head of the Secretariat of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, has said: “We have a common enemy that spends tireless efforts to undermine our work. The tobacco industry makes vast profits from making people dependent to nicotine, selling it in different forms—and they do not want anything to change.”
In Tuesday’s press conference, public health experts from Latin America, Western Africa, and Southeast Asia discussed that, based on PMI’s own figures, cigarettes are still the corporation’s core product. In fact, while PMI claims to be ‘un-smoking’ itself, it has produced almost 59,000 cigarettes for every dollar spent funding FSFW.
“PMI has known about the harm of and addiction to cigarettes since the 1960s,” Adriana Carvalho, Legal Director at ACT Health Promotion Brazil said. “Facing the first scientific evidence, PMI marketed low-tar cigarettes and falsely promoted them as reduced-risk products. Then PMI promoted flavored cigarettes to attract children. Now, it is iQOS, with flavorings and technological appeal to target the youth. PMI is following its historic logic of profit at the expense of health.”
PMI has marketed iQOS as the company’s path to ‘un-smoke’ the world. But iQOS is primarily marketed in wealthier countries and/or where cigarette sales were already in decline, suggesting the iQOS brand is about recapturing lost tobacco users, not curbing the epidemic. As one of PMI’s iQOS salesmen in New Zealand put it, “it’s not designed to help stop people from smoking. It’s designed to be a replacement.”
“Philip Morris’ claims of corporate transformation are misleading, hypocritical, and dangerous. If PMI was genuinely concerned about public health, it would implement a global product recall of cigarettes,” said Dr. Ulysses Dorotheo, Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Tobacco Control Alliance. “But apparently, countless more smokers dying doesn’t matter to PMI, which also continues to target low-income countries for market expansion.”
While expanding its cigarette business, PMI is employing old tactics—such as targeting young people and attempting to justify tobacco industry presence in regulatory policy—in new settings with new products. During the COVID-19 crisis, tobacco industry funded doctors have lauded vaping as a safer option, and PMI has used its investments in a vaccine development company as well as hypocritical corporate social responsibility stunts, like donating ventilators to the government of Greece, as justifications for Big Tobacco funding in public health.
“While industries are working to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in a responsible way, PMI is trying to exploit this crisis to sell iQOS and more cigarettes,” said Daniel Dorado, Senior Latin America and International Policy Organizer at Corporate Accountability. “But actions speak louder than marketing: During this pandemic, PMI is just doubling down on addicting new people to harmful tobacco products.”
PMI’s report on first quarter earnings reveals the true nature of the corporation’s concerns during COVID-19. In the report, PMI attempts to quell potential investor concerns about how COVID-19 will negatively impact consumer access to its products; the diminished duty-free sales in airports it has spent years building up; and a delay in implementation of tobacco-industry-friendly regulations all around the globe.
“PMI works behind the scenes to circumvent tobacco control policy, compromise the lungs of our children, and ensure that Big Tobacco has a stranglehold on the African continent as well as other parts of the globe,” said Philip Jakpor, Programmes Director at Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA). “PMI must stop compromising our governments and institutions and take responsibility for the harms done by its products.”
PMI’s rebranding efforts have not prevented governments from taking action to hold the corporation liable for its past and present abuses. PMI is currently facing 17 lawsuits in four countries for recovery of health costs resulting from tobacco use, as well as additional cases for illegal interference in tobacco control policy.
The corporation’s attempts to gain entry into public health policymaking spaces is one of the main drivers behind its rebrand. PMI has gone to extremes to try and block, weaken, and delay tobacco regulations in individual countries and the global tobacco treaty negotiations. At the next Conference of the Parties, initially scheduled for November 2020 but now delayed until 2021, governments will discuss the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, strengthening liability policy, and preventing industry interference.
“What is the main obstacle for accelerating tobacco control? Tobacco industry interference!” said Eduardo Bianco of the Framework Convention Alliance on Tobacco Control, Regional Coordinator for the Americas. “Governments must be on the offense, not the defense, with Big Tobacco. Ongoing and future litigation against PMI and other tobacco corporations to recover health costs incurred from cigarette use—and to implement rigorous tobacco control policy to keep this industry in check—is crucial.”
Tobacco remains the number one cause of preventable death in the world, killing more than eight million people every year. PMI’s actions make clear that it is not equipped to self-regulate: in the absence of rigorous tobacco control policy, the corporation will continue to addict new people to its deadly products.