Philip Morris program on hold
Tobacco maker Philip Morris suspended a national promotional campaign on Wednesday after the Florida Attorney General's Office raised concerns about it and called on the company to stop it.
In the campaign, representatives of Philip Morris approached people in grocery and convenience stores and asked them to fill out surveys in exchange for a coupon for a free pack of cigarettes. The program started last fall and was carried out by 1,500 representatives in Florida and across the nation.
On July 15 the St. Petersburg Times reported that the program operated at a 7-Eleven across the street from Countryside High School in Clearwater. In the article, a former representative of Philip Morris said that minors got cigarettes as a result of the campaign.
Later that week, Attorney General Bob Butterworth told the Times that his office was asking Philip Morris to stop distributing coupons for free samples in Florida.
"As a result of the reported comments made by the Attorney General, we decided to postpone execution of the program and undertake a comprehensive review," said Tom Ryan, a Philip Morris spokesman.
Butterworth could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Ryan said the program will undergo a "top to bottom" review.
Since October, workers clad in khaki pants and white shirts asked people to fill out a survey about their smoking preferences. The workers, hired by a marketing firm for Philip Morris, copied a driver's license on the survey to certify that the customer was over 21. Then they gave out a coupon for a free pack of cigarettes. Survey information was fed into a database that Philip Morris used to send the customers promotional mail.
The program was a device for the company to ensure that advertisements were directed to adults, Ryan said.
"There is a concern that cigarettes wound up in hands of minors," Ryan said. "That is a very serious concern."
Red flags went up in the Attorney General's Office when officials learned of the program. They said it might have violated the spirit of a 1997 settlement reached after Florida brought a huge lawsuit against tobacco companies.
Assistant Attorney General Jim Peters, who represented the state in the lawsuit, said the program pushed the margin of advertising restrictions placed on tobacco companies, especially regarding advertising to minors.
Florida settled with Big Tobacco before a larger settlement agreement involving 46 states barred tobacco companies from distributing free samples in places where people under 21 are admitted.
During a 1999 speech, Philip Morris vice president Stephen Parrish said the company "voluntarily stopped distribution that could not be carefully controlled, such as the free sampling of cigarettes." A loophole in the settlement allows the company to legally provide coupons for free samples.
Aside from contradicting its pledge to end free distribution, the company also violated a business agreement with 7-Eleven, a spokeswoman for the convenience store chain told the Times. Philip Morris tobacco representatives were banned from approaching a 7-Eleven customer until after the person made a tobacco purchase. But Philip Morris acknowledged that workers approached customers even before they made purchases.
Ryan said the program will be suspended for an unspecified amount of time while it is reviewed.