Philip Morris USA said Tuesday it will quit giving away cigarettes and will penalize merchants who sell them to minors, part of what the nation's biggest cigarette company called a major effort to curb underage smoking.
The maker of the bestselling Marlboro brand also said it would support legislation to license cigarette vendors and prevent youngsters from buying smokes at vending machines.
Philip Morris said the program reflected its concern about the tobacco industry's negative image caused by young people who smoke. Anti-smoking activists called the program an inadequate attempt that could make smoking even more enticing to youngsters.
James J. Morgan, president and chief executive of Philip Morris USA, said Philip Morris never has marketed cigarettes to youngsters but said "the fact is there is a perception the industry is interested" in doing so.
He said the new program should demonstrate Philip Morris' resolve to create "a marketplace where minors cannot buy cigarettes."
The tobacco company appointed former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire to audit its program and ensure compliance. State laws generally ban cigarette sales to people younger than 18.
The program comes as cigarettemakers face unprecedented pressure over the health consequences of smoking. Pending lawsuits accuse the industry of manipulating nicotine levels and demand that it pay the health bills of patients afflicted by diseases blamed on tobacco smoke.
Federal regulators have also been examining whether new rules are needed to govern the tobacco industry. The Food and Drug Administration has been studying whether cigarettes should be regulated as a drug delivery device.
Industry watchers said Philip Morris is eager to reap some public good will at little cost by dramatizing what company officials say has been a longstanding corporate policy against marketing cigarettes to youngsters.
The company said it didn't know how many of its cigarettes are consumed by minors and said the potential for lost sales was not a factor in developing the "Action Against Access" program.
Its ban on cigarette giveaways would cut distribution by about 25-million packs a year. That pales in comparison to its annual domestic sales of about 11-billion packs.
Roy Burry, tobacco industry analyst for Oppenheimer & Co., said other tobaccomakers probably will follow Philip Morris' lead for fear of looking bad. "They have to be socially acceptable or the product will be penalized and they don't want to be penalized," Burry said.
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., the nation's second-biggest tobacco company, has backed a program to discourage youngsters from smoking for five years and has been advertising it in recent days.
Reynolds spokeswoman Maura Ellis said the company would examine the specific suggestions Philip Morris has made. "The methods they have chosen may be slightly different than ours, but both of us want to achieve the same thing," she said.
Dr. Alan Blum, an anti-smoking activist from Houston, said he worried that by focusing attention on the evils of selling cigarettes to youngsters that the unspoken message would be it's fine for adults to smoke.
As part of the program, Philip Morris is immediately ending free cigarette samplings and mailings.