In April of this year, Philip Morris International (PMI)—the world’s largest tobacco company, valued at $175 billion—launched an unlikely campaign. Instead of advertising cigarettes, it was promoting a public health message: smoking cessation.
“The best choice any smoker can make is to quit cigarettes and nicotine altogether,” the Unsmoke campaign preaches on its website. “It’s time for friends, family and colleagues to come together. To inspire each other. To help each other. Together we can Unsmoke the World.”
It’s a strange move for a company that, just two decades ago, hid internal research findings (paywall) that nicotine became even more addictive when combined with other chemicals in cigarettes. But the latest campaign makes sense if you consider it as a smokescreen for the company to promote its cigarette alternatives to those who are trying to quit. In addition to manufacturing products like IQOS, a heated tobacco product, PMI has licensed the technology with the company Altria to sell in the US. Altria and Philip Morris International used to be the same company, but in 2008 the two split—although they still work closely together. Now, Altria owns Philip Morris US, and licenses its e-cigarette brands for PMI to sell internationally. Altria also owns a majority share of Juul, the dominating e-cigarette brand in the US.
The campaign is just the latest tactic PMI has crafted in response to global smoking cessation efforts. In a report released today (July 26), the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies the tobacco industry—including PMI specifically—as the single biggest obstacle to eliminating smoking. The report refers to the tobacco industry’s “long history of systematic, aggressive, sustained and well-resourced opposition to tobacco control measures.”
Smoking rates have decreased over the past 10 years, thanks in part to an effort by WHO. In 2003, it created a treaty called the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which the majority of countries signed. According to the new report, 5 billion people now live in countries with at least one policy aimed at cutting back tobacco use. Which is great: Cigarettes cause multiple types of cancers and cardiovascular disease, weaken the body’s immune system, and generally shorten lifespans by about a decade. But there are still 8 million smoke-related deaths per year, including 1.2 million people who die of second-hand smoke-related conditions.
PMI—which owns 130 cigarette brands, including Marlboro, Parliament, and Virginia Slims—has a history of trying to stall WHO’s progress. Two years ago, journalists from Reuters uncovered that since the FTCT’s creation, PMI has infiltrated and encouraged dissent in delegate meetings about tobacco regulation. It also continued to push colorful marketing campaigns targeted at young smokers in countries like India faster than the ads could be taken down.
Two months ago, shortly after the onset of the Unsmoke campaign, Reuters documented PMI using Instagram influencers below the age of 25 to promote some of its heated tobacco products (which are not cigarettes, but still expose users to tobacco and nicotine). The practice is legal, but it violates marketing standards the company set for itself; PMI immediately halted the campaign.
The tobacco industry markets e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products to help adults quit smoking. “Our Unsmoke message is clear: If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do, quit. If you don’t quit, change,” Corey Henry, a spokesperson for PMI, told Quartz.
But it seems that teens also love them. E-cigarettes come in 7,000 flavors, including sweet ones, which are more appealing to young people. Last year, a US-based survey found that the number of middle and high school students who vaped had doubled in the past year.
Currently, the US House of Representatives oversight committee is in the middle of hearings to determine Juul’s role in the rise of teen vapers.
PMI’s stock hasn’t taken a hit since the launch of the Unsmoke campaign.
The WHO has outlined what needs to be done to continue lowering smoking rates globally—which includes limiting tobacco industry’s influence. “Blocking tobacco industry interference is critical to successfully addressing the global tobacco epidemic and decreasing the public health consequences of tobacco use,” its report states.
“Organizations like the World Health Organization need to stop talking at smokers and start listening,” says PMI’s Henry. “The lack of dialogue is only hurting people that smoke.”
While the Unsmoke campaign does point out tobacco’s health risks, it’s not enough to fully realize the WHO’s other suggested policies to stop smoking, which include tracking smoking patterns, limiting cigarette marketing, taxing cigarettes, making more spaces smoke-free, and building resources to help people quit. These policies have worked to lower smoking rates so far—they just have to be put in place and enforced. And enforcement is at odds with what the tobacco industry ultimately wants.
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to IQOS as meaning “I quit ordinary smoking.” Though it is often referred to in this way, the name is not an acronym, per PMI’s website. Additionally, this story has been updated to clarify the relationship between PMI and Altria.