BOSTON -- Up to now, my all-time favorite oxymoron has been "Jumbo Shrimp." There is something so delicious about the name of these over-undersized crustaceans. But now the big-little critters have been put aside; we have bigger fish to fry.
The Oxymoron of the Moment is "responsible cigarette manufacturer." This phrase comes courtesy of the archenemy of lungs everywhere. As the little guy in the classic ad used to bellow: "CALL... FOR... PHIL-IP MOR-RIS!"
The giant company, home of the Marlboro Man and the slim Virginia, has just launched a glitzy new Web page campaign to buff up its corporate image and maybe its stock price.
So far, they've gotten attention and even kudos for finally acknowledging the "overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases." They also acknowledged that smoking is addictive "as that term is most commonly used today."
This might have been a breakthrough 35 years and millions of deaths ago when the first surgeon general's report was released. Today, however, it's a bit like announcing that the earth is round.
Of course, Philip Morris didn't fess up to its own role in the public health disaster. Matt Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids describes their "confession" this way: "It's like the criminal who's finally caught and he says, 'I'll never do it again,' but he doesn't admit he's done anything wrong."
Still, let's not be too blase. At least they've stopped comparing the addictive nature of nicotine to Twinkies. The folks who spent decades in denial, as they say in the 12-step programs, appear to be admitting they're powerless in the face of a higher authority -- public opinion.
With their reputation at an all-time low, with the stock price at a yearly low, with a Department of Justice lawsuit pending and courtroom losses growing, they're on a public relations roll.
Along with the Web site, Philip Morris is going to ante up a $100 million ad campaign to show the company as a good corporate citizen. See Philip Morris fighting domestic violence, helping after natural disasters, and, gulp, working for a cleaner environment.
Which brings us back to the (oxy)moronic new corporate image. There, on the new Web pages with their sites for quitting and sites for youth smoking prevention, is the new company label: "a responsible cigarette manufacturer."
Philip Morris is not alone in making such a claim. Brown & Williamson, which recently admitted to health risks, is also promoting itself as a "Responsible Company in a Controversial Industry."
But this is where the oxymoron meets the hypocrite. How does any company that admits their product causes cancer keep marketing it, responsibly?
Remember what the makers of Tylenol or Perrier did at the first hint of trouble? They took the stuff off the market. What do the manufacturers of cigarettes do? They admit cigarettes cause cancer and sell them anyway; they acknowledge smoking's addictive and promote it as "an adult choice."
The $100 million being used to promote the kinder, friendlier face of Philip Morris is a small fraction of the amount the company's using to sell cigarettes.
While launching the PR campaign, they will also be launching a new ad blitz targeting women, especially minority women: "Find Your Own Voice" by smoking. And while using a Web site to warn about underage consumers, the company promotes the very brand, Marlboros, inhaled by 60 percent of the kids who smoke.
"Quality tobacco products responsibly marketed"? The electronic smoke signals transmit a new message: "Trust us, we've reformed."
Big tobacco has changed its strategy. But as Tom Houston of the American Medical Association says flatly, "the leopard has not changed its spots."
When even the manufacturer acknowledges that the product is dangerous, it's time to get the product regulated by the FDA.
In the meantime, the new leaf they've turned over looks an awful lot like the old tobacco leaf.
Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.
Pub Date: 10/19/99