If you listen closely, you can almost hear the marketing machine revving up at the Altria Group, which kicked off its New Year with a new website called Citizens for Tobacco Rights. Altria is the owner of Philip Morris USA, the nation’s largest cigarette maker. Big Tobacco has always had a brilliant marketing hand. It had been quiet for a while, but now seems to be kicking into gear – at least a bit.
Altria says the site, tobaccorights.com, simply gives adult tobacco users an outlet to make their voices heard on such issues as taxes, smoking bans and other regulations (cough, when you say that).
It’s also gussied up in stars and stripes and encouragement for “smokers and dippers” to “Be Active and Be Heard” and “take action on the issues that they care about” (ie: the heavy hand of government meddling with their right.)
With Big Tobacco, messages are rarely what they seem. As journalist Peter Galuzska blogged this week in the Washington Post’s Posts Opinions site, tobaccorights.com “seems designed to tap some of the anti-government, anti-regulation fervor of the Tea Party movement to boost its top line.”
Galuzska went on to say: “One can only speculate as to why Altria is trying this gambit at this particular moment. An obvious possibility is that the firm’s propagandists want to tap Tea Party sentiment to boost sales. In 2010, the firm reported net revenue of $24.3 billon, a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year.”
That may be a bit extreme. This much we do know: Altria’s site launches as several states consider raising the cigarette tax in the face of budget shortfalls.
In North Carolina, for example, Rep. Jennifer Weiss (D-Wake) and Sen. William Purcell (D-Scotland) introduced legislation last year that seeks to increase the state’s cigarette tax by $1 and generate about $300 million in revenue for the state. The bill (HB341/SB338) would raise the current cigarette tax from 45 cents per pack to $1.45.
The bill has gone nowhere in the nation’s top tobacco-producing state. But, it’s worth noting that a poll last year showed 66 percent of North Carolina voters support a $1-per-pack tax hike to cut the state’s budget deficit and fund public health programs.
By now, most of us understand the importance of tobacco to our economy; that higher cigarette prices forces consumers to find cheaper or black market products (in the case of cigarettes, think India, Brazil or Columbia) while potentially putting thousands out of work.
But I think most of us, Democrats and Republicans alike, have pretty much done the math on tobacco and all its health risks. And frankly, it’s getting harder to defend the Altrias of the world, no matter how many flags they use to wrap up themselves – and their profits.