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Governor criticizes Philip Morris over ad offering a $2 rebate to smokers


A cigarette advertisement offering smokers $2 in "Tax Relief" from Maryland's recent cigarette tax increase has Gov. William Donald Schaefer doing a slow burn.

The governor lashed out at the ad yesterday, accusing Philip Morris Inc. of using store coupons in yesterday's editions of The Sun and The Evening Sun to undermine the state's intent to discourage smoking, especially among young people.

Smokers on May 1 began paying the higher tax, which was

passed to generate revenues and to combat the state's high cancer death rate.

The ad offered smokers $2 off the price of either four packs or a full 10-pack carton of the company's cigarettes. A headline under the coupon says, "Get relief from the new cigarette excise tax. From America's Premium Brands."

The $2 rebate "is the exact cost of the tax [increase]" on a carton of cigarettes, the governor said. "There was one purpose in that [excise tax], to get young people not to smoke. I don't want them to smoke."

The ad asks people using the coupon to sign a pledge certifyinthat they smoke and are at least 21 years of age. But that didn't cool Mr. Schaefer.

"If they said only people over the age of 55 or 60, that's OK," he said. "But to try to get kids to send in a coupon to get a $2 rebate, that's wrong."

Sheila Banks-McKenzie, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris in New York, said the ads were not political, but simply "a cleverly written ad to sell cigarettes. Period.

"Of course the industry does not want excise taxes to go up. The industry thinks the excise tax is unfair and regressive," she said. "This, however, is a sales ad."

The ad is running only in Maryland, she said.

The request that customers certify they are smokers and at least 21 years old follows "company policy," Ms. McKenzie said.

"You can't even send in for a T-shirt unless you certify you are 21 and a smoker."

Asked how the company knows the consumer is telling the truth, she said, "The only thing that has been done, on occasion, is randomly checking drivers licenses" in states that provide such data.

"So many thousands [of promotional coupons bearing age certifications] come in every day, we can't check them all," Ms. McKenzie said. Asked how many are checked in the course of a promotional campaign, she replied, "Scores. How's that?"

Underage customers are discovered among those checked, she said.

Mr. Schaefer made the cigarette-tax increase, and new state efforts to discourage smoking and combat cancer, major legislative goals in this year's General Assembly.

The governor won a $90 million increase in the cigarette excise tax, and a $5 million appropriation for an anti-cancer initiative.

But the legislature, at the urging of tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce Bereano, also placed a $250,000 limit on the amount the state could spend on anti-smoking media campaigns.

The governor complained yesterday that the legislators "didn't understand what they were doing.

"Just look at that ad," he said, referring to the half-page ad purchased by Philip Morris. The state can't afford comparable anti-smoking campaigns, and "when I try to get an ad free [to show the harmful effects of smoking] I can't get it."

Frank Traynor, a spokesman for the governor, said he knew of no occasion in which the state has asked newspapers to donate free space for anti-smoking advertisements. "I think he [Mr. Schaefer] was talking broader," he said.

The state is seeking financial help elsewhere in the private sector so that paid anti-smoking ads can be broadcast and published in Maryland this year, Mr. Traynor said.

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