Tobacco Firm's Gift Viewed as a Marketing Smoke Screen
Philip Morris Cos. has fired up tobacco critics by mailing 13 million free illustrated book jackets to schools nationwide.
Sample bookcover distributed to schools nation-wide by Phillip Morris.Although the covers ostensibly have an anti-smoking message--"Think. Don't Smoke"--school officials from California to Rhode Island say the tobacco giant is using them as a way to plant the message that smoking is cool.
In Shasta County, the Shasta Union High School District was about to hand out 1,000 free book jackets when officials noticed the words "Philip Morris" on them. The district promptly disposed of them.
Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, mailed a letter Tuesday to districts and county education offices, warning officials to be on the lookout for the covers and to thwart the "promotional endeavor" by keeping them out of students' hands.
As part of a $200-billion settlement with state attorneys general in 1998, tobacco companies are prohibited from advertising to minors. Under the settlement terms, Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard are giving money to states to fund campaigns to prevent smoking by the young. Philip Morris, for one, is spending $100 million to support anti-smoking programs and messages for young people.
Still, the book jackets mailed this fall struck many critics as an effort by the company to begin building bridges with impressionable youngsters who could turn into future customers.
"The point is that Philip Morris does want to reach kids or they wouldn't be producing book covers," said Kathryn Kahler Vose, vice president for marketing with the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington-based public policy organization. "There is a certain amount of hypocrisy and duplicity involved."
Philip Morris disputed that notion. "The only message these book covers are designed to communicate is: 'Don't smoke,' " said Brendan McCormick, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA, the nation's leading cigarette maker.
Philip Morris USA, based in New York, is part of Philip Morris Cos., which also owns Kraft Foods and Miller Brewing Co. Philip Morris makes Benson & Hedges, Virginia Slims, Merit and Marlboro, the No. 1 brand among teenagers.
McCormick noted that the book jackets also include the surgeon general's warning that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
The jackets, designed by Cover Concepts in New York, come in seven colorful versions. One features kids on skis and skateboards, with the slogan: "I have better things to do." Another shows a sunburst against a purple backdrop, with the message: "Reflect Confidence. Think. Don't Smoke."
High school students in Mesa, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix, took particular exception to a purple cover featuring a boy on a snowboard. Asked by their American history teacher, Theresa Ratti, to analyze the design, students objected to several elements.
"Once on a book, it looked like a cigarette package," said Jessica Aguinaga, 16, a junior at Mesa High School. "The mountains below the snowboard looked like cigarette tobacco." The board itself, students maintained, could pass for a lighted cigarette.
The students proposed burning the covers, but, Ratti said, the district refused to approve a bonfire on campus. Instead, the school bundled them into packets that it has been distributing to curious principals and researchers who have heard about the controversy.
Cover Concepts distributes book covers emblazoned with marketers' messages, by agreement, to 43,000 schools nationwide, including many in California. From January to June, it sent out 15 million Philip Morris covers, a fraction of the 125 million covers it will distribute this year to children in kindergarten through 12th grade.
According to Missy Godfrey, the company's publisher, 85% of public schools require that kids cover their textbooks to protect them. With custom-made book covers costing several dollars each, schools welcome the arrival of free wrappings.
Many principals and librarians, she said, wrote to commend the company on the "no smoking" message and the kid-friendly designs of the Philip Morris covers.
Mike Stuart, superintendent of the Shasta high school district, was not one.
"We have real strong no-smoking policies on our campuses, with $75 fines for each violation, and [the covers] didn't match up with our policy," Stuart said.
Gerald H. Kilbert, administrator of the Healthy Kids Program office at the California Department of Education, said most schools "are alert to the tactics of tobacco companies." Students, too, are becoming more aware of the dangers of smoking, he said.
Indeed, anti-smoking efforts on the part of California educators and health professionals--along with higher prices for cigarettes--have contributed to a dramatic decrease in the use of tobacco among 12- to 17-year-olds in the last couple of years. In 1999, only 7% of students 12 to 17 said they had smoked cigarettes in the previous 30 days, down from 11% in 1994, said Jon Lloyd, a data analyst with the state Department of Health Services' tobacco control section.