Philip Morris: Targeting Kids

The Beginning

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered North America during a major exploration sponsored by Spain. Upon his arrival, Columbus was offered dried tobacco leaves as a gift from the American Indians that he encountered. While strange for Columbus, the American Indians had been using tobacco leaves since about 6,000 BC for mostly religious and medicinal practices. Soon after this encounter, the Spanish sailors brought tobacco back to Europe, where the plant quickly gained widespread popularity. The increasing demand for tobacco in Europe at the time can be attributed to the fact that Europeans believed it could cure almost anything – from bad breath to cancer. In 1571, a Spanish doctor named Nicolas Monardes wrote a book about the history of medicinal plants of the new world, in which he claimed that tobacco could cure 36 different health problems.

In 1612, John Rolfe cultivated the first tobacco crop in Virginia. By 1619, it was the colonies’ biggest export and fueled economic growth in America. By 1760, a major tobacco company called P. Lorillard was established by Pierre Lorillard in New York City to process tobacco, cigars, and snuff. Soon after, more large tobacco companies began selling products all over America. With a high demand for tobacco all over America and an increase in the development of technology, by 1913, RJ Reynolds introduced the Camel brand, bringing with it the era of the modern cigarette.

Philip Morris

In 1847, a man named Philip Morris founded a small cigarette company in London. Cigarettes were becoming very popular in England at the time, as British soldiers were bringing large amounts of tobacco back from the Russian and Turkish soldiers. In effect, Philip Morris specialized in selling hand rolled Turkish cigarettes, and continued this until the 1900’s.

In 1902, the company set up headquarters in New York to market its cigarettes. However, it wasn’t until about 1960 when Philip Morris gained popularity in the United States because of their iconic Marlboro Man advertising campaign (See Figure 1). This campaign aided the company’s rapid growth from the sixth largest tobacco company in the United States to the leading manufacturer of cigarettes in the United States by 1983.

During this period of rapid success, the company decided to grow further by expanding into other businesses. In 1970, Philip Morris made the first of several acquisitions with the purchase of Miller Brewing Company. In 1985, Philip Morris Companies became a holding company and the parent of Philip Morris Inc. They then bought General Foods Corp. that same year. The company continued their expansion with the acquisition of Kraft Foods in 1988 and then a merger between Miller Brewing and South African Breweries in 2002. The following year, Philip Morris Companies changed its name to Altria Group, Inc. and Philip Morris USA moved its headquarters from New York City to Richmond, Virginia. Altria then divested the international business of Philip Morris as a separate company, and acquired U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company and premium wine manufacturer Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The holding company currently owns Philip Morris USA, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Company, John Middleton, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Philip Morris Capital Corp., and Nu Mark, a new company that produces Nicotine Lozenges.

Rapid Growth & The Marlboro Man

Today, now headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, Philip Morris is still at the top of the cigarette market. The company’s cigarette brands have about half of the cigarette market share and its leading brand, Marlboro, has a 39.9% share of the market. Other popular Philip Morris brands include Parliament, Virginia Slims, Merit, Benson & Hedges, L&M, Chesterfield, Cambridge, and Basic.

The majority of Philip Morris’ rapid success stems from their marketing in the 1950s. What might come as a surprise to many is that Marlboro, along with most of the filtered cigarette brands before the 1950s, were targeted towards women. The feminine image behind the brand was initially built to market Marlboro cigarettes as “safer” and “lighter” due to the filter. The original “Mild As May” cigarettes sold in sleek white boxes and featured red cellulose around the filter to hide lipstick stains (See Figure 2). However, in the late 1950s, in an attempt to avoid remaining stagnant in the market, Philip Morris decided to change this feminine image and target a more financially attractive group at the time – young males.

With the help of Leo Burnett, a Chicago based advertising agency, Philip Morris decided to reach out to this new target audience through archetypal masculine characters. The cowboy character was the first in the lineup and by far the most successful one. In addition, Leo Burnett did not appeal to the “health benefits” of the filter, but rather ignored any health concerns in the campaign, which was in the opposition to other brands.

Since the beginning, the Marlboro Man was an incredibly successful campaign with a direct and huge impact on sales. Within only a year, Marlboro went from being a niche brand with 1% market share to a top 4 position in the U.S. market. By 1972, after expanding the campaign into other “manly” professions, Marlboro became the most popular cigarette brand in the U.S. and has held the position since then. The Marlboro Man now remains a part of popular culture even long after the ban on tobacco advertising.

Tobacco Industry Today

Through the 60s, smoking cigarettes was a lifestyle in the United States. Practically everyone smoked because it was associated with a life of glamour. It was endorsed by many icons and famous figures at the time, most famously Audrey Hepburn and Steve McQueen, who were both rarely photographed without a cigarette in hand. Up until 1963, American adults were smoking an average of 12 cigarettes a day and weren’t too concerned about the negative effects on their health. However, in 1964, the surgeon general released a publication claiming that there is a link between cigarette smoking and cancer. That same year, the cigarette labeling and advertising act was passed which required all cigarettes sold to carry the surgeon general’s warning. Following the passing of this act, the tobacco industry was immediately hit with a number of other regulations including the 1971 ban on cigarette ads and the 1990 ban on smoking on interstate buses and domestic flights.

On top of the regulations, the tobacco industry was successfully sued by several U.S. states in the mid-1990s. Since then, the industry has suffered greatly. The lawsuits claimed that tobacco causes cancer, and that companies in the industry knew this but deliberately understated the significance of their findings, contributing to the illness and death of many citizens in those states. The industry was found to have multiple internal memos confirming in detail that tobacco is both addictive and carcinogenic, which were used as evidence in court. These lawsuits caused a lot of problems for the tobacco industry and negatively changed its perception by people in the United States. However, in 1998, tobacco companies settled to gain immunity from future lawsuits from government groups in return for $246 billion to be paid out over the course of 25 years. This payment was agreed upon by state governments to compensate for the expenses placed on their Medicaid programs from treating tobacco related conditions.

In addition to the multiple lawsuits and regulations, tobacco companies were greatly affected by a constantly increasing tobacco tax. Today, the U.S. government directly taxes cigarettes with an excise tax and additionally, all state governments tax cigarettes by the pack. This obviously led to drastic increases in cigarette prices in an attempt to deter people from buying them. However, despite these changes and a now public understanding of the negative health risks, there are still millions of addicted smokers. In addition, Philip Morris remains profitable with a large market share and continues to make money off a product that is addictive and damaging to its customers.

Targeting Kids & Ethical Perspectives

Philip Morris is perceived as “evil” by the general public. This is not surprising considering the company sells products that kill almost 20% of Americans every year. Recently, however, the company has been attempting to convince the public that it is not the enemy by spending large sums of money on advertisements intended to prevent the youth from smoking cigarettes. This effort presents a very interesting ethical dilemma. Should Philip Morris be considered an unethical company regardless of its “good deeds” because of its harmful products? Or could the company be considered ethical because of its efforts to decrease youth smoking rates? In order to answer these questions, we will analyze Philip Morris’ anti-youth-smoking campaigns using the three major approaches to normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics.


Looking at this issue through a deontological lens, one needs to focus on the motives of the action. In this case, the action is Philip Morris’ decision to produce and participate in anti-youth-smoking campaigns. Recently, Philip Morris announced that it was actively involved in more than 130 programs in more than 70 countries. Also, the company has spent more than $300 million on youth anti-smoking programs and campaigns, including the widely known “Think. Don’t Smoke.” campaign. Furthermore, it is actively seeking new “anti-youth-smoking” partnerships with youth service organizations, state school systems, and major universities.

According to Immanuel Kant, a philosopher whose theory of ethics is considered deontological, “to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty.” Kant also insists “it is not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action.” Looking at the roots of the campaign, it began mainly because as part of a $206 billion settlement, major tobacco companies like Philip Morris agreed to pay for advertising campaigns to educate consumers about the dangers of tobacco. Therefore, Philip Morris produced these advertisements out of “respect” for the law, or because it is its duty to do so. In effect, based on Kant’s theory, Philip Morris’ campaign should be considered moral. However, looking at this issue through a deontological perspective disregards the consequences of, or what actually happened, following the campaign.


A consequentialist believes that a “morally right act is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence.” So, in order to analyze this action through a consequentialist perspective, it is important to focus on the actual outcome of the anti-youth-smoking campaign rather than Philip Morris’ motives behind it. In a study published in The American Journal of Public Health, respected academic researchers concluded that the advertisements aimed directly at young people had no beneficial effect, while those aimed at parents were actually harmful to young people exposed to them. The researchers claimed that the ads are “fuzzy-warm,” which could actually generate favorable feelings for the tobacco industry and its products. In addition, their theme – that adults should tell young people not to smoke mostly because they are young people – is exactly the sort of message that would make many teenagers feel like lighting up.

In effect, while good intentioned, the counter-productive nature of the campaign would mean it is ultimately unethical through a consequentialist lens. Marlboro is the most popular brand among kids with 60 percent of the underage market (Parliament, another Philip Morris brand, is number four). Research suggests that roughly 2,000 kids become regular Marlboro smokers every day with more than 600 of them likely to die prematurely because of their smoking. If current trends continue, roughly five million kids alive today will die from smoking – and about three million of them will have started their smoking habit with Marlboro cigarettes. 

Virtue Ethics

According to deontology, Philip Morris’ campaign is ethical because it was their duty to educate consumers about the dangers of tobacco. On the other hand, consequentialism suggests that the campaign is unethical because, regardless of the company’s intentions, young people continue to smoke their products. Therefore, in order to truly analyze the morality behind the campaign, one needs to use the third major approach to normative ethics: Virtue Ethics. This perspective emphasizes the role of character and virtue in moral philosophy rather than either doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences.

While Philip Morris’ intentions may seem moral in the public eye, recent research indicates that the youth smoking prevention programs were not really designed to effectively prevent youth smoking but rather to head off a government crackdown. According to Judge Gladys Kessler of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, “[The youth smoking prevention programs] are minimally financed compared with the vast sums spent on cigarette marketing and promotion; they are understaffed and run by people with no expertise; and they ignore the strategies that have proved effective in preventing adolescent smoking.” One example of this is that the television ads do not stress the deadly and addictive impacts of smoking, an emphasis that has been shown to work in other anti-tobacco campaigns. Considering that Philip Morris is widely known for its marketing savvy, this information should raise concerns. In addition, an internal Philip Morris document from 1992 states that “the ability to attract new smokers and develop them into a young adult franchise is key to brand development.” Based on this information, it is quite clear that Philip Morris used the campaigns for its own personal gain. In effect, using the theory of Virtue Ethics, the company’s campaigns should be considered unethical or immoral because of their ulterior motive of brand development rather than “acting as a virtuous person would act in [their] situation.”


There are so many different ways to judge a tobacco company in terms of ethics as their sole purpose as a company is already considered unethical. For this reason, I decided to use ethical theories to analyze only one aspect of Philip Morris Inc.: their anti-youth-smoking campaigns. Using deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics, it became clear that judging the morality of Philip Morris’ campaigns is not as straightforward as one would think. Deontology, or Kantianism, suggests that Philip Morris’ efforts should be considered ethical because it was the company’s duty to produce the campaigns. However, Consequentialism and Virtue Ethics suggest otherwise. After delving further into the details of the campaigns, the issue presented itself as more unethical than ethical. Through a number of studies conducted by known researchers, it became clear that the campaigns were actually counterproductive and were implemented in an effort to increase growth and brand development.

Philip Morris, or any other tobacco company, is a very interesting case when it comes to company ethics. Tobacco has been a very large of western culture for around 500 years. It greatly assisted the economic growth of the United States since the beginning. Today, tobacco is frowned upon by society and the companies that were once so well respected in the country are now hated by many. They sell a product that is responsible for about 440,000 deaths a year. While they can continue to pursue “healthier” forms of smoking or even put more funds and effort into their anti-smoking campaigns, there is no way for the company to operate without harming anyone. To ask Philip Morris to act completely ethically would be asking them to shut down operations completely.


Figure 1: Marlboro Man


Figure 2: Mild As May



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