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Philip Morris’s Website And Television Commercials

Tobacco Control 2007;16:e9; doi:10.1136/tc.2007.024026


Philip Morris’s website and television commercials use new language to mislead the public into believing it has changed its stance on smoking and disease

Lissy C Friedman

Correspondence to:
Lissy C Friedman, Public Health Advocacy Institute, 102 The Fenway Cushing Hall, Room 117, Boston, MA 02115, USA;

Received 25 October 2007

Accepted 25 October 2007


Objectives: This paper analyses Philip Morris’s evolving website and the legal strategies employed in its creation and dissemination.

Methods: Internal tobacco documents were searched and examined and their substance verified and triangulated using media accounts, legal and public health research papers, and visits to Philip Morris’s website. Various drafts of website language, as well as informal discussion of the website’s creation, were located in internal Philip Morris documents. I compared website statements pertaining to Philip Morris’s stance on cigarette smoking and disease with statements made in tobacco trials.

Results: Philip Morris created and disseminated its website’s message that it agreed that smoking causes disease and is addictive in an effort to sway public opinion, while maintaining in a litigation setting its former position that it cannot be proved that smoking causes disease or is addictive.

Conclusions: Philip Morris has not changed its position on smoking and health or addiction in the one arena where it has the most to lose—in the courtroom, under oath.

In 1999, Philip Morris, Inc, the largest and most powerful multinational cigarette manufacturer in the world, launched an advertising campaign publicising its new website, which contained information about the harmful effects of smoking. The website included an extraordinary statement that appeared to admit that Philip Morris now believed that the issue of causation between smoking and disease had been proved. It referred viewers to various governmental and public health resources, including the Surgeon General’s Report and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as major public health advocacy organisations such as the American Cancer Society. Moreover, Philip Morris appeared to admit that smoking is addictive, conceding that quitting can be difficult, and referring website users to various cessation resources.

The initial reaction from the press, the public and plaintiffs’ litigators was a mixture of guarded optimism, scepticism and incredulity. Was Philip Morris raising the white flag and ready to concede that its products caused the sickness and death of its consumers for more than half a century? Would this perceived concession cause a seismic shift in the products liability landscape, resulting in possibly thousands of plaintiffs’ verdicts that could bankrupt the company? Did Philip Morris intend to set an example for the rest of the tobacco industry and take responsibility for its past bad conduct? A recent study by Balbach et al examined tobacco industry trial testimony and how the tobacco industry misuses its website and advertising campaigns to be a source of specious information for consumers and the public.1 The study found that the information was conveyed without taking any responsibility for the quality, veracity or accuracy of that information, thus allowing the tobacco industry’s witnesses to claim disingenuously that consumers made an “informed choice” to smoke. Balbach et al concluded that this places the “moral responsibility” on the smoker: if the smoker ends up being injured as a result of smoking cigarettes and sues for compensation, then the tobacco industry defendant can claim that the consumer was fully informed yet made the wrong choice, thus shifting the blame away from the tobacco products and their manufacturers to the consumer.

This paper will focus on Philip Morris that, of all the major tobacco companies, has made the most visible use of its website with an accompanying advertising campaign supporting its website’s message, at Extending beyond the specific information provided on the tobacco industry’s websites and the industry’s fluid definition of “truth” and “information,” as discussed by Balbach et al, this paper will focus less on the substance of Philip Morris’s website and more on its litigation strategy and how it hoped to use the website to manipulate and deceive juries to influence the outcome of litigation. The paper will demonstrate through trial testimony how plaintiffs’ lawyers repeatedly revealed the deceptive nature of this campaign. It will examine how this litigation strategy may have influenced the verdicts of cases, with several juries finding against Philip Morris and awarding huge punitive damages awards, and in one case a federal judge finding that Philip Morris, along with its tobacco company co-defendants, were racketeers. Unmasking Philip Morris’s deceptive strategy that drove the creation of its website has been and should continue to be a useful tool for plaintiffs’ litigators in holding Philip Morris and other tobacco companies accountable in the arena where it counts most—the courtroom.

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