What's the Marlboro Man's Game?

The slick, 20-page antitobacco brochure appeared in mid-November in USA Today, The New York Times, and several other dailies. "Smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases, like lung cancer, than nonsmokers," it read in part. Another barb from the antitobacco lobby? Nope. The sponsor was none other than the Philip Morris Cos. (MO ), the world's biggest cigarette maker.

What's up? Company spokesperson Ellen Merlo, noting that the company had no legal obligation to print the brochure, says that Philip Morris simply "wanted to raise awareness" for its Web site. But outsiders see a different agenda. Under legal and regulatory attack from all sides, Philip Morris is trying to show voters, jurors, and politicians that it has turned over a new leaf. It's trying "to make it harder to penalize the industry," says Morgan Stanley tobacco analyst David J. Adelman.

These days, Big Tobacco's unpopularity is more costly than ever. Righteous juries are levying huge punitive damage awards with increasing regularity, including a $28 billion California verdict in October. Meanwhile, cash-starved state and local governments are hiking cigarette taxes.

A successful public-relations campaign could make it harder to turn Philip Morris into a punching bag. It also could give a boost to the company's push to make the Food & Drug Administration oversee cigarettes. Execs believe that if their product is federally regulated, it will be easier for them to combat plaintiffs' lawyers and hostile local legislators.

The risk, of course, is that the campaign hurts sales. But the teenagers who are the company's potential new customers are unlikely to plow through the densely worded pamphlet. And adults who are hooked already know about the dangers of cigarettes. So the new campaign may do little to deter folks from lighting up, making it less costly than it appears.

By Mike France in New York

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