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Blowing smoke about a bad habit

In the world of tobacco spin, fact and fiction often mingle.

In 1994, Washington novelist Christopher Buckley (the son of William F. Buckley Jr.) published his delightful fictional satire, Thank You for Smoking, that ridiculed the tobacco industry's twisted lobbying efforts to justify the cigarette business.

That was the same year when, in a now famous scene, eightreal-life tobacco executives reluctantly stood in a row, right hands raised, in a Capitol Hill inquiry and swore that cigarettes are not an addiction but merely a pleasurable habit, much like a morning cup of coffee or a Twinkie.

Right. Let's fast forward eight years.

In Tampa this week, Washington lobbyist John Hoel of Philip Morris, the world's largest tobacco company, again defended the cigarette business. But Philip Morris, best known worldwide for its Marlboro cigarette brand, has learned a few things about public relations since the days when executives simply refused to admit _ even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary _ that cigarettes cause lung cancer and heart disease.

"We spent years winning the tobacco wars but we stuck ourselves in a bunker," Hoel acknowledged in luncheon remarks to the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "People today want companies to be accountable not just for their behavior, but for the impact of their products."

Hoel is a perfectly pleasant chap _ a non-smoking lawyer with a wife, two young kids and parents now retired on Florida's Gulf Coast _ who honed his skills of persuasion as a congressional staffer in the House. He joined Philip Morris to lobby for tobacco in 1996, just as a firestorm of massive lawsuits nearly overwhelmed the entire industry.

Hoel's message? Philip Morris is done with its Neanderthal deny-deny-deny strategy on tobacco. Are cigarettes addictive? Sure. Do they cause cancer and emphysema? No argument there.

But tobacco continues to be a legal product that has a big customer base in this country and even bigger demand overseas. Until that changes, Hoel said, Philip Morris will try to balance the conflicting obligations to discourage smoking by youths but encourage smoking by adults.

That way, so the theory goes, Philip Morris helps meet its social responsibility and its business mandate to maximize the financial return for its stockholders.

"If these youth smoking prevention efforts accelerate a decline in sales of Philip Morris cigarettes overall, we're prepared to accept that," Hoel said.

The lobbyist's audience, about three dozen South Tampa business managers, obviously had more trouble digesting his logic than their lunch. One listener told Hoel she found it hypocritical that Philip Morris would back anti-smoking programs for young people while pitching cigarettes to adults. Another said he hoped Hoel was well paid for representing such an unpopular industry. And another in the audience asked Hoel if Philip Morris plans to make up for weaker U.S. sales by selling more cigarettes overseas.

In some foreign markets, selling cigarettes meets little resistance. Look at Japan. While about half the adult male population smokes, Japan's warning label is among the world's weakest: Please remember to follow good smoking manners. As smoking might injure your health, please be careful not to overdo it.

Wow. That will stop you in your tracks. (I prefer a warning label in Australia: Smoking Kills! Or maybe this version from Canada: Smoking Makes You Impotent with a picture of a drooping cigarette ash.)

Why, one Tampa luncheon attendee asked, is Philip Morris still selling tobacco at all?

Hoel's heard it all before. His response: Philip Morris would be "irresponsible" if it left tobacco sales to other, presumably less ethical organizations. Philip Morris is the only major tobacco company that currently endorses oversight of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration. If the FDA regulates tobacco, the thinking goes, the product is less likely to be banned outright in the future.

In the meantime, Hoel and the tobacco industry keep sparring with states and in courtrooms.

Philip Morris opposed amendment 6 in Florida's November general election that would outlaw restaurant smoking sections. It was approved anyway.

Philip Morris was one of five big tobacco companies this month to urge Florida's 3rd District Court of Appeal to throw out the record $145-billion jury award in 2000 to Floridians who say they were sickened from smoking. The companies argued the trial plan was unconstitutional and the plaintiffs' attorney used unfair tactics to incite the jury.

Last month, Philip Morris lost a $28-billion jury verdict in Los Angeles, the largest ever in a suit by an individual smoker. That followed a $3-billion verdict in the same city in June 2001. Anybody notice a trend?

A week ago, Philip Morris shares fell 14 percent after the company abandoned its profit forecast for next year. Philip Morris said a flood of cheap imports and counterfeit brands is hurting U.S. cigarette sales.

Still other anti-smoking campaigns and lawsuits are proliferating. For lobbyist Hoel, it all makes for a contradictory mission.

Please, think of Philip Morris as a kinder, gentler tobacco company. But most of all, thank you for smoking.

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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