Studies Rap Philip Morris on Gay Marketing
Tobacco company denies wrongdoing
THURSDAY, June 5, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- In two new reports, researchers claim the Philip Morris tobacco company tried to extend its advertising reach into the gay community in the early 1990s while denying it was targeting any specific group.
"They were trying to have it both ways. They want the market, they want the business, but they want to buy our silence and distance themselves when homophobes object to their involvement," says Naphtali Offen, co-author of one of the studies and a research associate at the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender) Tobacco Project at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF).
Philip Morris also turned a boycott led by gays into a public relations opportunity by boosting its funding for AIDS organizations, the researchers say.
But a spokesman for Philip Morris defends the company, saying it markets its product -- which he acknowledges is "addictive" and "causes serious disease" -- to all kinds of groups and has advertised for years in gay-oriented magazines. In regard to the boycott issue, spokesman Brendan McCormick says the company has a history of supporting charitable organizations, including those that fight AIDS.
Today, tobacco companies actively pitch their products to gays through advertising in magazines and newspapers, and the market seems to be receptive. Studies have shown gays and lesbians are more likely to be smokers than heterosexuals.
But tobacco companies weren't always interested in advertising directly to gays. In 1992, Philip Morris became the first tobacco company to buy ads in a gay-oriented magazine.
But the groundbreaking ads in a magazine called Genre, geared toward gay men, created a stir. Philip Morris responded to media requests by saying it didn't target "specific groups in society," researchers report in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
That, the researchers charge, was disingenuous. An examination of internal tobacco company documents found that a marketing consultant in early 1992 urged the company to advertise its Benson & Hedges cigarette brand in gay publications.
The documents were released in 1998 as part of a settlement between the attorneys general of several states and the tobacco industry.
The consultant wrote that the company could target the gay community and that "you can own this market." The company agreed to do so, "but when they got called on it, they said they really didn't even see [Genre] as a gay magazine," says study co-author Elizabeth A. Smith, a research associate at UCSF's LGBT Tobacco Project.
Philip Morris continued to advertise in gay publications throughout the 1990s. "Our marketing efforts are designed to appeal to diverse people of both genders and all ethnic groups and sexual preferences," McCormick says.
In another report, in the June issue of Tobacco Control, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco claim a 1990 gay boycott against Philip Morris backfired.
The boycott was launched by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the ACT-UP organization, which used a blend of public theater and shock tactics to draw attention to the AIDS epidemic. The chapter was angry about the tobacco company's support of then Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C., an opponent of AIDS funding and gay rights.
The boycott, against Marlboro cigarettes, had no major effect on the earnings of Philip Morris, the researchers say. But the company did respond by boosting its funding of AIDS organizations and the chapter ended its boycott efforts, even though Philip Morris still supported Helms.
"The boycott that was initially against the industry ended up being an opportunity for [Philip Morris] to make friends by settling the boycott," Smith says.
McCormick, however, says Philip Morris has long supported charities, including those involved in health efforts. In fact, he says, the tobacco company even supports efforts to educate people about the risks of smoking.
"We manufacture a product that causes serious disease in smokers and is addictive," he says. "The safest thing for people to do is not for smoke at all."
However, he adds, 45 million Americans haven't made that choice.
Meanwhile, the company went a step further Tuesday toward accepting more government regulation. Mike Szymanczyk, chief executive of Philip Morris, told a Congressional panel that oversight from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would let the company sell two products that are less harmful than cigarettes, according to an Associated Press report.
The company had long opposed any government regulation over tobacco, but changed course in 2000, saying it would be amenable to some oversight. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that year that the FDA had no authority.