Secret documents reveal how tobacco industry targeted gay men

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By Maureen McInaney on May 28, 2003

Philip Morris (now known as Altria) viewed the gay community as “an area of opportunity” for promoting the Benson & Hedges cigarette brand and targeted the community under the guise of philanthropy, according to UCSF researchers.

In an analysis that appears in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health, the UCSF team reports that Philip Morris advertised in the gay media in an attempt to “own the market,” but then quickly distanced itself.  According to Elizabeth A. Smith, PhD, research associate in the UCSF School of Nursing department of social and behavioral sciences and lead author of the paper, “Philip Morris wanted the gay market but didn’t want to be publicly associated with the community.”

In a related analysis appearing in the June issue of Tobacco Control, UCSF School of Nursing researchers describe the beginnings of Philip Morris’ relationship with the gay community through analysis of a 1990-91 boycott of Marlboro and Miller beer.

The boycott was designed by ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) to persuade Philip Morris to withdraw support from Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC).  Reviewing previously secret internal company documents, the researchers found that, ultimately, the boycott inspired the tobacco company to use philanthropy to gain the gay community’s support. “Philip Morris settled the boycott by agreeing to financially support groups fighting HIV/AIDS,” said Naphtali Offen, B.S., a research associate in the UCSF School of Nursing department of social and behavioral sciences and lead author.

Following the boycott, Philip Morris began advertising in the gay periodical Genre.  However, when this venture was publicized, the company immediately backtracked, denying that the magazine was “gay” and claiming they had no knowledge of the gay market, according to the research team.

“Philip Morris wanted to have it both ways,” said Smith. “The company was undermining gay men’s health by selling them a lethal product, then trying to stay in the closet about the relationship.”

Ruth Malone, RN, PhD, associate professor in the UCSF School of Nursing and senior author on both analyses, said the research shows why current lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community tobacco control initiatives are essential. “The gay community’s particular vulnerabilities to the tobacco industry make development of gay tobacco control programs crucial to reducing gay smoking prevalence and tobacco industry presence in the gay community,” she said.

This conclusion and others by the UCSF researchers were drawn after their review of previously secret internal tobacco industry documents. Most of the papers have been made available through litigation, including the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement among 46 state attorneys general and the tobacco industry.

In another paper, also published in the June issue of Tobacco Control, Smith and Malone conclude that the tobacco control movement, which changed public policies and public views on tobacco regulation during the 1980s and early 1990s, was possibly even more effective than previously understood.

In the early 1990s, Philip Morris—faced with increasing pressures from non-smoker’s rights and public health communities and conflicts among its varied operating companies - seriously considered dumping the tobacco business because of “anti-tobacco sentiment” and its effects, according to the researchers.

However, this option was rejected in favor of the image enhancement strategy that culminated with the recent “Altria” name change proposal, according to Smith. Philip Morris announced in late 2001 that it would be changing its name to The Altria Group - thus distancing both the corporation and its other operating companies (especially Kraft General Foods) from the tobacco industry, according to the researchers.

“These documents show that advocacy efforts don’t have to prohibit tobacco in order to have a huge impact on the tobacco industry. In fact, making the tobacco business socially and economically untenable has the potential to eliminate it as a viable corporate enterprise,” Smith said. “These documents are evidence that, even within the tobacco industry, there was an emerging awareness that ‘business as usual’ could not continue indefinitely.”

The research team found that the declining viability of the tobacco business was discussed by the highest executives and the board of directors of Philip Morris.

“These discussions directly attributed declines in business to the effectiveness of tobacco control activists in changing public policy and sentiment about tobacco,” said Malone. “Although the company ultimately decided on an image makeover instead of an ‘endgame’ strategy to get out of the tobacco business, the documents reveal that skimming off tobacco in order to protect food profits was seriously considered.”

This research project was funded by a grant from the National Cancer Institute.

The tobacco industry documents are available on UCSF’s Legacy Tobacco Documents Library website (http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu).

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