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Big Tobacco Keeps Thumb on Makers of Stop-Smoking Aids

Memos show cigarette firms pressured manufacturers of nicotine gums and patches to mute their message.

February 14, 1999|MYRON LEVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cigarette makers and the drug firms that market nicotine gum and patches would seem to be natural enemies, at war in a multibillion-dollar market of people hooked on nicotine.

Yet a peaceful coexistence has reigned between them since nicotine replacement products were introduced in the 1980s to help smokers kick the habit.

The quit-smoking aids are widely advertised, and in recent years have joined such remedies as Advil, Tums and Robitussin on a list of the country's top-selling over-the-counter medicines. Yet they are promoted in a manner certain to minimize conflict with cigarette manufacturers.

Veterans of the smoking wars think they know why.

For at least a decade, Philip Morris sought to intimidate drug firms marketing the stop-smoking products, using the threat of economic reprisals to make them tone down their ads and refrain from supporting the anti-smoking cause, according to once-secret documents from the world's biggest cigarette maker. Philip Morris officials declined interview requests.

R.J. Reynolds, the second biggest U.S. tobacco company, also was engaged in some of the efforts, documents and interviews show.

Pressure tactics were exerted against at least two major drug firms between 1982 and 1992, although they may have continued beyond that date. A nonconfrontational marketing approach for the nicotine products remains in use today.

Moreover, within the last three years, a major worldwide supplier of cigarette filters to the tobacco industry has become a power in the gum and patch business, thus playing in both arenas of the nicotine market.

Drug firms say their ads are not intended to appease the tobacco industry, but rather aim for the best approach to boosting sales. Even so, their marketing message is the same one that cigarette makers sought to dictate in the past by threatening to cancel supply contracts with the drug firms' corporate parents, internal memos show.

Rather than attack cigarettes directly or implore all smokers to quit, their ads target the narrow band of smokers who are currently trying to quit--offering a product that can help ease their nicotine cravings.

As ads for top-selling Nicorette gum put it, "You can do it. Nicorette can help." It's a catchy slogan, but also consistent with guidelines tobacco executives sought to impose when the gum was introduced. For example, a 1985 Philip Morris memo cited the tobacco firm's "understanding" with the marketer of Nicorette that it would avoid "emotional . . . pleas to stop smoking" and advertise "strictly on the basis of 'if you want or need to quit, we have the product.' "

Companies Muffle Anti-Smoking Message

The involvement of drug firms in anti-smoking politics has been limited as well. Since gaining federal approval in 1996 for over-the-counter sales, patch and gum marketers have financially supported the American Cancer Society and American Lung Assn. in exchange for using their logos in ads. But to the disappointment of tobacco foes, they have chosen not to involve themselves directly in political fights--such as by lobbying for higher tobacco taxes that would help their business by making quitting more attractive.

Considering the history of tobacco industry pressure, "I think there's no question that there's still a residual influence," said Gregory N. Connolly, director of tobacco control for Massachusetts.

Drug firms seem determined "not to get into a public war" with cigarette makers, when "what the public needs is a war between the tobacco industry and the drug industry," Connolly said.

"There are a lot of people who hoped that when they [drug companies] got into the 'quit' market, they would be more aggressively involved in a lot of activities to reduce tobacco use," said Matt Myers, general counsel for the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Some observers have even suggested there is a symbiotic relationship between drug and tobacco firms as millions of would-be quitters cycle between buying cigarettes and gum or patches in a long-term struggle against nicotine addiction.

For their part, drug companies say their targeting of committed quitters--rather than the universe of smokers--reflects the reality that quitting is extremely difficult. Targeting those who are ambivalent about quitting--and thus almost certain to fail--can only breed a sense of defeat and a poor image for the products.

"There's nothing more important in making a quit attempt than being committed to it," said George Quesnelle, vice president and director of medical marketing and sales for SmithKline Beecham Consumer Health Care, the top marketer of patches and gum. "If people quit smoking using our products, that creates great word of mouth . . . but there's nothing that can kill a product faster than bad word of mouth."

Tobacco companies have not influenced the marketing "in any way, shape or form," Quesnelle said.

Boasting that over the years more than 1 million smokers have quit with their help, drug firms say they must be doing something right.

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