Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro: 'We're trying to give up cigarettes'

Philip Morris, maker of Marlboro: 'We're trying to give up cigarettes'

CultureJanuary 08, 2018 By Brian Frederick

It's like if McDonald's came out and said it didn't want to sell burgers anymore.

Or if Goodyear said, "Nah, we're done with tires, maybe we'll try baked goods instead."

Or, fingers crossed, Facebook made a resolution to stop being so intrusive and move to a family friendly business model of developing organic baby nutrients devoid of peanut shards.

Because what Philip Morris announced recently is nothing short of historical. As the second largest supplier of tobacco in the world, it has come out and said it no longer wants to sell cigarettes — a product that has driven the company's worth to around $180 billion (15x what Twitter's currently worth).

Last week, the multi-national behemoth — partly responsible for a direct $170 billion burden on American healthcare services — bought full-page ads in several newspapers around the UK proclaiming it's utilizing ample resources to move forward in promoting a smoke-free world.

"Our ambition is to stop selling cigarettes in the UK," reads the ad. "It won't be easy. But we are determined to turn our vision into reality. There are 7.6 million adults in the UK who smoke. The best action they can take is to quit smoking." 

It hasn't done so out of sheer generosity, however. Cigarette companies lately have been scrambling to find alternatives to their long-preferred method as pushback from all sides has become stronger. Not only has general sentiment around cigarettes been declining for decades (and teens no longer picking up the habit as they once did), the Food and Drug Administration's Commissioner Scott Gottleib all but announced a war with tobacco companies unless they figure out a solution soon.

“The overwhelming amount of death and disease attributable to tobacco is caused by addiction to cigarettes –  the only legal consumer product that, when used as intended, will kill half of all long-term users,” said FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, M.D. in a 2017 press release. “Unless we change course, 5.6 million young people alive today will die prematurely later in life from tobacco use. Envisioning a world where cigarettes would no longer create or sustain addiction, and where adults who still need or want nicotine could get it from alternative and less harmful sources, needs to be the cornerstone of our efforts – and we believe it’s vital that we pursue this common ground.”

But the tobacco giant wouldn't be getting out of the "smoking" game entirely. New methods for nicotine delivery have long been in development stages including vaping, heat-not-burn devices (such as Philip Morris' IQOS system, and the very real possibility of having low nicotine plants replace all tobacco in cigarettes moving forward (with the latter showing the most promising results for those who want to quit altogether). 

Attempting to stay ahead of Gottleib's curb, Philip Morris says it's now focusing more aggressive efforts to e-cigarettes and the IQOS (heat-not-burn) system, which it says "are a better choice."

Though as Fortune's Mathew L. Myers and Robin Kovat point out, this flashy PR tactic has been used by big tobacco before:

"This is also not the first time Philip Morris has claimed that it would get out of the cigarette business. In 1954, a Philip Morris vice president stated, “[I]f we had any thought or knowledge that in any way we were selling a product harmful to our customers, we would stop business tomorrow.” Yet tobacco industry scientists knew at the time that cigarettes were dangerous to health. In 1997, Philip Morris’s CEO said in a deposition that the company would “shut [production] down instantly” if presented with evidence that smoking causes lung cancer. But that evidence had already been presented in a surgeon general report released more than 30 years earlier."

Which is of course unsettling, more so for the families who have lost loved ones to cancer or other ailments dircetly linked to smoking over the past several decades. Though in 1954 and 1997, Big T wasn't exactly fighting a losing battle as they are now (with Gottleib, a cancer survivor and physician, steering the ship toward a brighter future) at the time. 

Change? It could be coming. 

[cover photo: Sajjad Zabihi via Upsplash]