Aug 20, 2021 • 26M

Where There's No Smoke, There's Fire

Philip Morris International wants to get you off of cigarettes — sort of.

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The 174-year-old tobacco company spent much of its life blowing a cloud of deceit around the deadly effects of its signature product. Now eager for a do-over, PMI’s highly advertised “Unsmoke the World” initiative seems strangely noble, until you start asking questions.


TEDDY ROOSEVELT: Surely there never was a fight better worth making than the one which we are in.

BOB GARFIELD: Welcome to Bully Pulpit. That was Teddy Roosevelt, I’m Bob Garfield. This is episode five: Where There’s No Smoke, There’s Fire.

It’s been a hot and violent and infectious and altogether unsettling summer, in the midst of which — in the New York Times and all over the internet — emerged this: Philip-Morris International CEO Yatzick Olczak in an ad campaign speaking about the dangers of cigarettes.

OLCZAK: The science exists today and there is no time to spare to solve the problem of smoking.

The problem of smoking? From the maker of Marlboro’s? There’s an attention getter. A bona fide Merchant of Death vowing to phase out cigarettes in favor of so-called smoke-free products, like his company’s non-combustible IQOS.

TUTORIAL: Say hello to new IQOS heat control technology. Using it couldn’t be easier. Remove the IQOS holder from the pocket charger, insert the tobacco stick tobacco side down in the holder and up to the silver line. Turn on, and when the LED turns solid green you can start to experience the true taste of real tobacco by heating, not burning it.

The goal, Philip Morris says, is for smoke-free products to represent half of the company’s revenue within four years. “Unsmoke the world,” is the slogan.

OLCZAK: The prime cause of harm generated by the smoking is an outcome of the combustion. Okay? When you burn the cigarette, when you burn the tobacco you release the thousands of the chemicals. Many of those chemicals, they are very bad for the human body.

Olczak says this as if it’s a fresh revelation, but it’s still jarring to hear Phillip Morris, of all institutions, speak of smoking as a scourge. And to bet the corporate future on a gizmo that aims to obsolete its core product. Listen to the man’s frustration that there are skeptics who are not immediately accepting IQOS as a triumph of science and technology.

OLCZAK: I do recognize that there is still a group of people who don’t believe us. That’s fine. So, it’s perfectly okay to disagree with us, but it is not perfectly okay to deprive yourself from the ability to have a dialogue with us, to listen, to have a conversation, to read our science. We know that our vision is right, because of the impact PMI has on the society to solve the problem of smoking and the faster we recognize this whole thing and start working on a strategy, the better we all together will be.

Oh, OK, now he’s playing more to type — informing us that it is unacceptable to ignore Big Tobacco on the question of reducing tobacco’s harm. Oh, is it now? Those of us of a certain age can vaguely remember — whaddayacallit? —  the 20th century, during the entirety of which Big Tobacco denied, for example, any link to cancer.

REP. WAXMAN: In a deposition last year, you were asked whether cigarette smoking causes cancer. Your answer was, quote, “I don’t believe so.” Do you stand by that answer today?
TISCH: I do, sir.
REP. WAXMAN: Do you understand how isolated you are in that belief from the entire scientific community?
TISCH: I do, sir.

That was from a 1994 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, in which Congressman Henry Waxman famously confronted Lorillard CEO Andrew Tisch and six other tobacco bosses. But “isolated” wasn’t the half of it. For decades, the industry denied links to heart and lung disease, denied the addictiveness of nicotine, denied chemically augmenting nicotine’s effects, denied marketing to children — all the while actively undercutting scientific findings, actively producing junk science, falsely claiming filtered and so-called “light” cigarettes were safer and propping up a variety of sciency-sounding front groups — such as the Council for Tobacco Research — that seemed all distinguished and shit but existed only to obscure the deadly truth about smoking. Which is why, by the way, when Philip Morris noisily pledged $80 million to help underwrite The Foundation for a Smoke Free World, both the World Health Organization and the UN General Assembly cited conflict of interest in telling Big Tobacco to butt out.

Nonetheless, the promise of getting the deadly smoke out of smoking has captured many an imagination, including Wall Street’s, which has rewarded Phillip Morris and other tobacco makers with bigger share prices and rosy outlooks from stock pickers. Because, the thinking goes, while it’s counterintuitive to steer into a skid, that’s the way to regain traction.

PUNDIT: This is all kind of part of Philip Morris’s general rebranding away from smoking products and cigarettes. And they’re really seeing the writing on the wall here as cigarette sales in higher income countries continue to dwindle and they’re coming under increasing pressure from many governments to curtail their cigarette sales. It’s really become in their best interest to kind of make this general shift away from cigarettes and nicotine.

That’s from Britain’s I24 business news. Lo and behold, analysts from Chase, Stiffel Nicklaus, UBS, JP Morgan, Morningstar Research and stock-predictor engine Trefis, have rated Philip Morris International a buy. At about 100 bucks a share, it’s price has grown more than 40% in the past 10 months.

Of course, while stock prices are historically a highly reliable measure of public sentiment, one thing the free market is notoriously free of is conscience. As a universe, investors are concerned with ongoing earnings growth and nothing else, which is why, as the planet burns to a cinder, Exxon Mobil’s share price has doubled in the past year. What’s surprising about the smoke-free strategy is that it also has been embraced by a significant cohort of the public health community. This is an excerpt of a video from Public Health England, in which doctors Lion Shahab and Rosemary Leonard show a dramatic experiment comparing the output of burning tobacco versus the nearly pristine vapor from smokeless cigarettes.

SHAHAB: My research shows that e-cigarettes are significantly less harmful than cigarettes. A big reason why is the tar, which you can see here, which is not produced by e-cigarettes but produced by cigarettes. The impact of using e-cigarettes in the long-term is very similar to using licensed nicotine products such as nicotine patches or nicotine gum, as you can see here when you compare the control jar with the vapor jar.
LEONARD: So, this experiment shows that every cigarette you smoke causes tar to enter your body and it’s the tar that contains the poisonous chemicals that spread through the bloodstream.
SHAHAB: Which are linked to diseases such as heart disease, stroke and cancer.

That’s one view. There is also an opposite one, as voiced by Dr. Vinayak Prasad, head of the World Health Organization’s tobacco control division.

PRASAD: Switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is not quitting, number one. Number two, we don’t see the smokers switch to e-cigarettes 100 percent. The dual use is again very harmful. What we are also seeing is that more and more younger people are taking to e-cigarettes and then later progressing to tobacco.

As for Philip Morris, he told the UK’s Bureau of Investigative Journalism, quote:

If they really want to be a part of the solution, they should go tobacco-free, not smoke-free. If they are genuine about a tobacco-free society, they will readily embrace anything to reduce the demand for all forms of tobacco products.

Anything else, he says, is a “criminal act and a human rights violation.”

In other words, within the tobacco-control universe, a schism — a polarizing debate hinging on the lesser of two evils. Ruth E. Malone is a professor of social and behavioral sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, and editor of the journal Tobacco Control.

MALONE: We are adding all these new additional products and we are still sorting out what the overall public health impact of that is going to be. So is the impact going to be that, as some people say, it definitely is helpful for them in getting off cigarettes, but others revert back to smoking cigarettes and you just have a larger market of people using tobacco and nicotine products rather than actually reducing the damage from those products.

The Public Health England tar experiment would seem to be a vivid and maybe even mic-drop argument for society gratefully accepting smoke-free technology. But to Malone, the whole schism-framing may itself be problematic. She worries that viewing the debate on stark, binary terms obscures a less obvious and highly dangerous element of Big Tobacco’s strategy — namely, as Philip Morris’s Olzcak insisted — claiming that its expertise has earned the industry a role in governmental decisions about tobacco regulations, treaties and laws. She posed a rhetorical question if ever there was one.

MALONE: Should an industry that produces the single most deadly consumer product in history be involved in regulatory decisions about what to do about it and other products that are potentially supplanting or replacing or adding on to the damages caused by cigarettes?

So, never mind “lesser of two evils.” How about “the fox guarding the henhouse.”

MALONE: Part of the problem now is that, as they do periodically with some frequency, some tobacco companies are engaged in a big makeover, a part of which is aimed at undermining the tobacco control movement on a global level. We have to think not just about the United States, but also what's happening globally, where countries are trying to implement the world's first public health treaty, which is the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the WHO  treaty. And one of the provisions of that treaty is Article 5.3, and this is getting a little into the weeds, but basically it says don't let the tobacco companies interfere with your public health policies. They should not have a seat at the table because they have a conflict of interest. That seems pretty fundamental. And that is a real motivation right now for the tobacco companies, is to get back to the table where they can influence policies and prevent policies that might hurt their bottom line.

Clearly, til now, the industry has engineered near impunity throughout the developing world. In 2020, the aforementioned Bureau of Investigative Journalism published an expose titled The ‘Unsmoke’ screen: the truth behind PMI’s cigarette-free future, a piece that looked beyond Phililp Morris’s do-gooder narrative for evidence of the same old same old. For example, quote:

Since it announced its aim to stop selling cigarettes, it has acquired a new cigarette company, launched a new brand, and added enticing new flavours such as Splash Mega Purple and Fusion Summer. It has also launched legal action against anti-smoking policies in countries like the Philippines, and has carried on advertising cigarettes in countries that permit it.

COMMERCIAL: Wanna stand tall? Be true, be bold, be strong, be brave, be daring, be free, be heard, be inspired? You can say yes, or say no. Just never say maybe. Never say maybe. Be Marlboro.

That’s a Marlboro commercial aired in Indonesia, a country of 271 million people.  Furthermore, according to the BIJ story, quote: “Some pupils in Indonesia can see PMI’s cigarette advertising mere steps from their schools’ gates. Young people attending festivals in Buenos Aires are offered PMI cigarettes in promotions with beer. Children visiting corner shops in Mexico can see Marlboro’s ‘fusion’ cigarettes next to sweets.”

BRANDT: We need to be very skeptical of these companies that claim that they've crossed over to legitimate health oriented products because they've made these claims, you know, since the 1950s.

Allan M. Brandt is a professor of the history of science at Harvard and author of The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. In 2012, for the American Journal of Public Health, he wrote Inventing Conflicts of Interest: A History of Tobacco Industry Tactics.

BRANDT: They told Americans, you know, if you're worried about smoking, smoke filter cigarettes and that was the beginning of Marlboro. You know, you had a cowboy smoking a safe cigarette, which turned out not to be the case. So I'm very skeptical and worried about the current situation with vaping, e-cigarettes, other nicotine related products, and the idea that we're just a responsible company trying to mitigate the harms that our principal product has produced for over a century.

And as you probably know, just in the last month, it was reported that the American Journal of Health and Behavior published a entire issue on harm reduction and Juul vaping. And it turns out we're not quite as naive as we used to be. It became clear and it was widely reported in the press that the issue of this journal was completely paid for by Juul and the work was done in Juul labs. They return to this strategy of: we can produce the science. And it has muddied the waters and diluted the authority that science really needs to have positive public health impacts. And we really need science. And science has to speak with expertise and authority and validity and clear and aggressive peer review. And we need to know the difference between something that is a fact and something that obscures facts.

GILCHRIST: There’s no doubt that misinformation and conflicting information is confusing adults who smoke.

That was Moira Gilchrist, who holds a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences, back in June. She was not speaking of Big Tobacco’s century of disinformation and its toll. In a video about Philip Morris’s smoke-free initiative, she was addressing current conflict about smoke-free.

GILCHRIST: One day they hear good things about smoke-free alternatives and the next they hear scare stories, and as a scientist I find that really, really upsetting. Because the science is very clear.

It’s a corporate video. Gilchrist is PMI’s Vice President for Strategic & Scientific Communications, whom I spoke to this week. I asked her if she was struck at all by the irony of her complaint, what with Philip Morris’s own sorry history of obfuscation and all.

GILCHRIST: Well, look, I think I'm not going to speak to, you know, the past history of any company or an industry. What I'm focused on is today and what we know today, and we've made a real deliberate effort to make all of the science publicly available so that people don't have to trust us. They don't have to take our word for it. They can look at what the data says. And we've gone really, really strongly to ensure that we're using open science principles, sharing not just our own conclusions, but also the source data on which we’ve based those conclusions, so people can feel cynical and feel skeptical. That's fine, but they cannot ignore the data. And that's all I ask, is that independent scientists look at what we've done and look at it with an open mind in order that we can get the facts straight and make sure that adult smokers have the right information to make the right decisions.

GARFIELD: We've heard from scientists who do embrace the benefits of a smoke free world, and we have heard a great deal of skepticism about Philip Morris’s motives. We've heard both those things. One accusation, though, is that you are creating, excuse the expression, a smokescreen for influencing governmental tobacco control authorities around the world. Indeed, Olczak said that very thing, that authorities cannot not listen to your science.

GILCHRIST: So that, again, we've made the science openly available. We've submitted it to regulatory authorities like the US FDA, who spent three and a half years poring through more than a million pages of evidence in order to make a decision to authorize our product. And so this is what we're asking governments to do, because governments can play a really important role in ensuring that adults who smoke have the right information, ensuring that they have access to these products that are a better choice than continuing to smoke. So I think that's what we're asking governments to do. And many of them are doing so. And I think that's really encouraging for the more than a billion smokers all around the world.

GARFIELD: I just want to make sure that we agree on some basic facts. Philip Morris does now buy by legal agreement and in its public statements acknowledge that, that smoking burning tobacco does cause cancer, does cause heart disease, does cause emphysema and and so on.

GILCHRIST: We have been clear about that for many, many years, and in fact, before I joined the company. We've been very clear that cigarette smoking is extremely unwise because of the diseases that it causes and premature death that it causes. And that's why we set on this path of creating alternatives so that people who don't quit can have another choice that they can go to. The best thing they can do is to quit because these products are not risk free. But if they're not going to quit, they should really consider switching to a smoke-free alternative.

GARFIELD: So I believe the follow up question, and this is not a question you've not heard before, is why the fuck is Philip Morris still selling combustible cigarettes anywhere? Something like 800 billion coffin nails a year are being sold and consumed worldwide. Why not just shut that part of the business down today?

GILCHRIST: So Bob the key word is transformation. This cannot happen overnight. By 2025, we want to be a majority smoke-free company. So I think we're making tremendous progress. We still have a long way to go. And that's why we're calling on governments to help, because regulation can really help to encourage adults who don't quit to switch to better alternatives.

GARFIELD: Who says that the solution is transformation and not cessation? Along this path that you've described, there are, according to the World Health Organization, eight million people a year around the world who will die of smoking related illnesses. Why transform instead of just stop?

GILCHRIST: So here's the thing. If we, Philip Morris International, chose to stop selling cigarettes altogether, that would not solve the problem of smoking because most adult smokers would simply switch to our competitors’ product and there would be absolutely no impact on public health. So the approach that we've taken is to encourage those people who don't quit to instead switch. And in this way, we can reduce the number of people who are smoking combustible cigarettes and at the same time still make a profit for us as a business. So I think transformation is the way that we can have not just a long term future for the company, but also make a positive impact on public health.

GARFIELD: Til now, we've been speaking of science and technology and business. I want to ask you about just fundamental morality. If I, for example, choose not to go into a Walmart with an AR-15 and shoot up the place, gun violence in America will not disappear. But I myself won't be a murderer. I will have not contributed to gun deaths. Isn't that reason enough for me to stand down?

GILCHRIST: Look, again, we made a very deliberate decision that the best and quickest way we can get to a smoke free future is by developing, scientifically assessing and commercializing products that are a better choice than continuing to smoke. And if we were to stop selling cigarettes tomorrow, unilaterally, it would not have an impact on public health.

GARFIELD: Perhaps I'm naive, but what I'm actually asking about now is a better outcome for the corporate conscience. Is it not better if you are not participating in what has been called the Golden Holocaust?

GILCHRIST: So, look, I joined the company to do exactly what we're doing, and that's to provide better outcomes for each individual adult smoker and also better outcomes for our company as well. And I think that's what we're doing.

Gilchrist chose not to address the question of conscience further, but rather just reiterated the smoke-free strategy. So I asked Tobacco Control’s Ruth Malone approximately the same question.

MALONE: I'm old enough to remember one time when a juice company had some salmonella — some contamination of their products — they pulled all their products off the market until they could be, in fact, made safe and they instituted new procedures to make them that way. The tobacco companies have repeatedly said they would do that if it was ever found that their products were unsafe. But in fact, they have never done that. I just think it's time to call their bluff on all this and say, you know, don't just talk about this. If you're really serious about this, then change the nature of your corporation. Become a B corporation. Be working on behalf of the public good. Get rid of the combustibles altogether. Quit selling them.
GARFIELD: Yeah, yeah, when pigs fly.
MALONE: Yeah, I'm afraid so.
GARFIELD: I just wonder if you were in a lake and you were drowning, and the chairman of Philip Morris came running to you and threw you a rope. What would you do?
MALONE: I don't know if there's anything at the other end of that rope, so I’d look and see if anybody else had a life preserver. And I'd probably swim. I'd try to swim.

All right, we’re done here. Next week, Part 2: Crime Against Humanity.


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Now then, Bully Pulpit is produced by Mike Vuolo and Matthew Schwartz. Our theme was composed by Julie Miller and the team at Harvest Creative Services in Lansing, Michigan. Bully Pulpit is a production of Booksmart Studios. I’m Bob Garfield.