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Critics say cigarette push defies law's spirit

The pitch goes like this:

Are you 21 or older? A smoker? Then you can have a coupon for a free package of cigarettes if you just fill out this survey and let me make a copy of your driver's license.

Representatives of tobacco giant Philip Morris have been approaching customers with that offer in grocery and convenience stores nationally and in the Tampa Bay area since October.

But some critics now say the campaign contradicts corporate promises and appears to defy the essence of advertising restrictions placed on tobacco companies in the wake of a settlement of massive government lawsuits against Big Tobacco.

One key restriction under the settlement is a ban on free samples of cigarettes in places where people under 21 are admitted.

The Philip Morris campaign follows the letter of the law, but whether it's within the spirit is a matter of personal opinion, said Jim Peters, special counsel to Florida's Attorney General.

"From my perspective, it pushes the margin," said Peters, who represented Florida in its lawsuit against tobacco companies that was settled in August 1997.

Philip Morris executives have pledged not to give away their product for free.

The company "voluntarily stopped distribution that could not be carefully controlled, such as the free sampling of cigarettes," Philip Morris vice president Stephen Parrish said during a speech in Chicago in November 1999.

The same message appears on the company's "Youth Access Prevention" Web site: "We do not provide free samples of our cigarettes to consumers."

But that policy apparently doesn't affect coupons for free samples.

Philip Morris spokesman Tom Ryan said the ultimate goal of the in-store survey program, called the "Adult Recertification Program," justifies the giveaway.

It is a method for Philip Morris to update its database of smokers with people proved to be at least 21, Ryan said.

"We wanted to move away from mass marketing and direct our message at adult smokers who wish to participate in our programs," Ryan said.

John Chryk, a former survey-taker in the program, said he was assigned to do the promotion on April 17 at a 7-Eleven directly across State Road 580 from Countryside High School.

Chryk said students filtered in and out of the store throughout the day.

"We've had minors get the cigarettes by having older people complete the survey with our knowledge," Chryk said.

Ryan was not aware that a promotion had taken place near a school.

"We work very hard to avoid these incidents," he said.

Chryk also said representatives approached any customers who appeared to be at least 21. That would violate 7-Eleven corporate policy, Cathy Heald, a 7-Eleven spokeswoman, said.

"The agreement we have with tobacco companies is that (representatives) can approach the customer after they've made a tobacco purchase," Heald said. "That (campaign) is not something we would support as a responsible retailer."

Chryk was fired after about four months with the program, he says, because of sexual discrimination. Steve Goldsten, director of human resources at Field Marketing Inc., which ran the program for Philip Morris, declined to comment on Chryk's dismissal.

Heald said about 10 percent of the 7-Eleven stores host cigarette manufacturers that run similar promotions.

Chryk said he worked 40 hours per week and was expected to gather 50 surveys per day. Representatives are expected to wear khaki pants, a white shirt and a button that says "We Card Everyone. ID's required to complete this survey." He estimates there were 13 other representatives from the Tampa Bay area at a training session he attended in May.

About 1,500 people work in the program nationwide, said Barbara Smith, regional manger for Field Marketing Inc. She declined to say how many were in the Tampa Bay area.

The campaign raised the suspicions of a local resident on May 31, who called Pinellas County sheriff's officials. Deputy Jim Durrett went to Fastshop Foodmart, 3186 62nd Ave. N, where Chryk and another former Philip Morris representative, Mike Parry, were passing out surveys and copying licenses.

Chryk and Parry explained the promotion to Durrett, who made no arrest or citation.

"They weren't doing anything illegal, but a red flag goes up when someone wants to copy an ID," Durrett said.

Field Marketing Inc. said it gives its representatives a drug test and criminal background check before they start work.

Ryan said the information in the surveys is used only by Philip Morris.

"The survey is our way to identify people who wish to receive mail from Philip Morris," Ryan said. "It is not to advertise or promote our products at retail."

The survey requires a phone number, address and answers about smoking preferences. There is a space at the top of the survey for the representative to copy a state-issued ID. The applicant signs beneath a statement that certifies he is 21, has provided a copy of a valid ID and is willing to receive cigarette coupons and incentive items in the mail.

Philip Morris brands include Basic, Marlboro, Benson & Hedges and Virginia Slim cigarettes. The corporation owns Nabisco, Kraft foods and Miller Brewing Co.