In a recent development that has sent shockwaves through the public health community, tobacco behemoth Philip Morris finds itself embroiled in a high-stakes legal battle on the French front. Allegations of a colossal pro-tobacco “propaganda” campaign, in direct violation of public health law, have been hurled at the company by none other than the Comité National contre le Tabagisme (CNCT), a prominent French anti-smoking advocacy organization. Despite France’s stringent ban on tobacco advertising, Philip Morris’s French subsidiary stands accused of orchestrating an elaborate subterfuge under the guise of its ‘smoke-free world’ slogan, covertly promoting its cigarette and heated tobacco business online.
Unveiling the Smoke and Mirrors
The crux of the lawsuit lies in Philip Morris’s alleged distortion of government health warnings, the establishment of misleading websites, and the promotion of products such as heated tobacco as potentially “less harmful” alternatives to smoking, all while the shadow of scientific evidence on long-term health impacts looms ominously. Hugo Lévy, the lawyer representing CNCT, minces no words when he analogizes Philip Morris’s marketing strategy for its IQOS heated tobacco products to the insidious propaganda campaigns of yesteryears employed by tobacco giants to peddle cigarettes. He unequivocally states, “The lie behind ‘smoke-free alternatives’ is as coarse as the lie behind R.J. Reynolds’s ‘More Doctors Smoke Camels’ campaign. We are beyond illegal advertising; it is propaganda.”
In a twist that adds a personal dimension to the legal quagmire, CNCT has not spared Jeanne Polles, the president of Philip Morris France, labeling her an “accomplice” for her role in appearing in news articles and videos as part of the company’s deceptive strategy.
The High Stakes Game
While the lawsuit may ostensibly appear as a financial endeavor, its true objective is rooted in reputation. CNCT seeks to have a judge unequivocally repudiate Philip Morris’s entire modus operandi in marketing its products through the ‘smoke-free world’ campaign. The insinuation is clear: Philip Morris is employing this campaign as a smokescreen to conceal its ulterior motive – to continue dominating the French cigarette market while subtly pushing heated tobacco and smokeless products into the limelight.
Notably, this is not the first time CNCT has locked horns with Philip Morris. In a previous legal tussle, the organization accused the tobacco giant of illicit advertising and emerged victorious, securing damages that Philip Morris is presently appealing.
Decoding IQOS and Smokeless Claims
Central to this saga is Philip Morris’s IQOS, a technologically advanced device designed to heat a tobacco stick at a lower temperature than a conventional cigarette. Positioned as one among several ‘smokeless’ alternatives peddled not only by Philip Morris but also by other tobacco industry players, IQOS is marketed as a “better choice” than traditional cigarettes. However, the scientific consensus on the safety of smokeless products remains elusive. Some scientists argue that the emissions generated by IQOS could indeed constitute ‘smoke,’ raising concerns about potential long-term health risks.
CNCT leaves no room for ambiguity, asserting that the rhetoric surrounding smokeless products aims to mislead the public into believing in their reduced harm, despite a dearth of conclusive scientific evidence. In their eyes, the ultimate goal of this rhetoric is the illicit promotion of Philip Morris France’s product lineup.
The Skepticism of Anti-Tobacco Advocates
Anti-tobacco advocates have long accused tobacco companies of simply attempting to shift consumers from one nicotine product to another, rather than earnestly pursuing a smoke-free world by discontinuing the sale of cigarettes altogether. The stark irony here is that Philip Morris France, a subsidiary of the global tobacco juggernaut Philip Morris International, is estimated to be responsible for nearly half of France’s cigarette sales, featuring brands like Marlboro and Chesterfield. These sales figures stand juxtaposed against an alarming statistic: smoking accounts for an estimated 75,000 premature deaths in France annually, a number highlighted in the lawsuit.
Online Campaign Tactics Exposed
Within the 34-page legal complaint submitted by CNCT lies an intricate web of allegations against Philip Morris France. The organization accuses the company of deploying “commercial propaganda” by distorting information on heated tobacco, as provided by the French government and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Transparency rules, too, stand breached, with Philip Morris France actively encouraging consumers to engage with a European Commission consultation on smoking regulations under the banner of “Defend your IQOS.”
Additionally, CNCT uncovers the existence of a website titled “Popular Misconceptions about Cigarettes,” cleverly designed to redirect visitors to the company’s advertising and related websites despite disclaimers to the contrary. The organization also claims that the company’s involvement in a campaign warning consumers about counterfeit cigarettes was, in reality, a ploy to steer them toward purchasing original products, including those manufactured by Philip Morris France. Allegations of indirect tobacco advertising through the company’s Twitter account, prohibited under French law, further muddy the waters.
A Call for Accountability
In the realm of French law, punitive damages find no place, but CNCT has firmly petitioned the court to compel Philip Morris France to pay upwards of $450,000, should the company be found guilty. This substantial sum is intended to offset the costs incurred by the advocacy organization in its relentless battle against smoking.
Summarily, CNCT underscores the gravity of the situation, asserting that Philip Morris France’s activities constitute a large-scale strategy, backed by significant investment, with the sole aim of self-serving communication, designed to obscure the ongoing sale of conventional cigarettes and heated tobacco products. The purported safety of these products, in their view, is a fiction that must be laid bare.
As this legal drama unfolds, one thing remains indisputable – the tobacco industry’s quest for reinvention and rebranding is fraught with contention and skepticism. The smoke may dissipate, but the questions surrounding the intentions of industry giants linger on, casting a long shadow over the future of public health.