Big Tobacco Masters Newspeak

Philip Morris is the public face of American tobacco. It's by far the biggest cigarette producer, and it has also produced much of the cultural iconography of smoking, from the "paging Philip Morris" campaign in the early days of television to the eternally macho Marlboro Man. Now, in the wake of recent legal setbacks, Big Tobacco is picking up the pieces and moving on, and Philip Morris (now using the alias "Altria Group") is still out front. This was made clear last November when a Sunday edition of The Washington Post carried a 22-page, magazine-sized advertising insert (on thick, glossy paper) from your friends at Philip Morris U.S.A.

The package was a masterful work of "newspeak"—the language George Orwell invented in his dystopian novel 1984. Newspeak was used to control people's thoughts by redefining the words they used, so that "war" became "peace." Orwell's thought police also rewrote history so that whenever political alliances shifted, history books and newspaper archives were rewritten to prove that the new reality had always been the case. "We are at war with Eurasia. We have always been at war with Eurasia." Actually, on the Internet, this manipulation of the historical record would be much easier, and the Philip Morris ad booklet was mostly devoted to touting the contents of the company's new Web site.

Here are some Orwellian highlights from the site: Philip Morris U.S.A. endorses the findings of every surgeon general's report on the dangers of smoking all the way back to 1964. Smoking causes cancer. Smoking is addictive. There are no safe cigarettes. Second-hand smoke causes diseases in non-smoking adults and children. Big Tobacco has always stood shoulder to shoulder with the public health community in the battle against smoking. War is peace. And, oh, by the way, love is hate.

THIS HAS BEEN a long time coming. In recent years, Big Tobacco has slowly conceded most of the opposition demands on warning labels and marketing restrictions. But tobacco is still a large, powerful industry, with almost 25 percent of the U.S. adult population still addicted to its product. The industry still has to defend itself against lawsuits from many dead or dying tobacco addicts and their families. And it needs to defend and extend its access to world markets. Hence a new public relations offensive.

Philip Morris and the other tobacco giants see great growth potential in newly opened global markets. And they aim to keep those markets as open as possible. At the moment, Philip Morris has a case before the World Trade Organization challenging a Canadian move to ban the use of the terms "light" and "mild" in cigarette packaging and promotion. As this is written, the company is also working to head off international restrictions at a U.N. convention on tobacco control.

This new offensive also comes when the Republican White House and congressional leadership are about to push for "tort reform"—limits on the ability of U.S. citizens to bring combined class-action lawsuits seeking punitive damages against, for instance, the makers of harmful products. This is something all corporate America wants. But, obviously, Big Tobacco's interest in the issue is more urgent than most.

The campaign for "tort reform" was simmering during the last election season. My home state of Mississippi and its Democratic attorney general, Mike Moore, started the lawsuit that forced Big Tobacco to its knees. At the time our Republican governor tried, and failed, to derail the suit (as did the Republican governor of Texas, George W. Bush). And, not surprising, Mississippi has borne the brunt of the early campaign for tort reform. This past summer and fall big business interests held our state legislators hostage through an 83-day "special session" until they coughed up dollar limits on "pain and suffering" and "punitive" damages in civil lawsuits.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration eliminated one barrier to corporate power when it effectively broke the U.S. trade union movement (anyone remember PATCO?). But ordinary citizens can still punish corporations, and perhaps influence their behavior, through the courts. The Bush II administration aims to eliminate that inconvenience. Next, no doubt, will come the sale of branding rights for the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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