Well, we can all sleep easier: Phillip Morris is not giving up on cigarettes.
Instead, in the face of everything already known about smoking and cigarettes, they are looking to the future. They’ve built a new research center meant to develop products to reduce the risk of tobacco use. The center cost $350 million. Dinyar Devitre, chief financial officer for the Phillip Morris parent company Altria, says that the center will also give the nation’s largest cigarette manufacturer “a leg up in the smokeless category.”
Those of you who have suffered the abuse of secondhand smoke will be thrilled to learn that the next thing coming from your co-workers and fellow bar patrons is a slobbering mouthful of high-tech chewing tobacco.
At the point where Devitre emphasized about the new research center that “the investment is large… and we’re pretty sure that it will bear fruit for Phillip Morris USA both in terms of volume and profitability in the years ahead,” I was reminded of the time that Colin Powell shocked both the press and the public during the first Iraq war when he calmly stated during a press conference, “We’re going to go in there and we’re going to kill them.”
It’s generally believed that Phillip Morris changed its umbrella name to Altria Group in 2003 so that it could shake free of the taint associated with making profits from cigarettes. The taint, not the profits. And it’s necessary to communicate to stockholders and potential stockholders that your company is on the move and looking ahead… toward profits. So, last week Altria’s cigarette division made a big splash about their new research center. And if changing names is about being discrete, try this on: The center is called “The Virginia Biotechnology Research Park.” Everybody liked that better than “Addictive Body-Destroying Products of Tomorrow Facility” or “Friends of the Reaper, Science Division.”
In the same article, Phillip Morris spokesman David Sylvia offered a spin that would have been envied by the Nick Naylor character in the film Thank You for Smoking. He said that despite declines in domestic cigarette sales, Phillip Morris was not turning away from the cigarette business because “that’s where our expertise lies.” Hopefully this won’t be appropriated by the White House if and when we invade Iran: “We’re starting another war, because this is where our expertise lies.”
You’d like to think that Altria/Phillip Morris was all alone in its exuberance about the tobacco use of tomorrow. But Wall Street also has cigarette fever. Citigroup analyst Bonnie Herzog believes that Phillip Morris already has a reduced-risk cigarette product that will put it at the head of the pack (her use of “pack”). “There’s no doubt in my mind that Phillip Morris is at the cutting edge of finding a way to reduce the risk in cigarettes,” Herzog told the Associated Press.
Previously, Phillip Morris broke from other cigarette manufacturers in endorsing regulation by the FDA that would give the government the authority to set standards for reduced-risk products. David Sylvia, the “expertise” guy, says, “Right now there is no testing regimen in place to determine whether one product is less risky than another.” So Phillip Morris was delighted to endorse government standards that could, potentially, establish to the public the virtues of its futuristic lower-risk cigarettes. No question I’m stretching here, but… would this be an event of the FDA endorsing certain cigarettes?
Somewhere I just read about an author who insists on living in France because “you can still smoke anywhere.” Painted that way, you can almost engender the feeling that maybe, somehow, we got this cigarette thing all wrong. Maybe we’ve been oppressing personal freedom and not directing enough resources toward lower-risk – not no-risk, just lower-risk – tobacco products.
This is like the way we’ve been overly judgmental about the oil industry. They’re not pirates out to control and plunder us. They want to work with us to find new ways to make oil “lower-crappy,” if you will. This really rattles the paradigm of so many things. I need to go fill my gas tank for four bucks a gallon, get to Wendy’s for a reduced-fat bacon triple cheeseburger, and run up some inexplicably high text message charges as I inform all my friends that we’ve been looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The future is not only going to be bright, it’s going to be brown and wet and only mildly cancerous, like a mouthful of research-improved smokeless tobacco.