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Joseph Cullman III, 92; Made Philip Morris a Power

May 03, 2004|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

NEW YORK — Joseph F. Cullman III, the Philip Morris executive who built the company into a corporate superpower and became the cigarette industry's chief defender against the antitobacco movement, has died. He was 92.

Cullman, who also built Marlboro cigarettes into the best-selling product in the world, died Friday at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan of natural causes.

On Jan. 3, 1971, when the government ban on cigarette advertising on television took effect, Cullman, as chairman of the Tobacco Institute's Executive Committee, said on "Face the Nation" that "I do not believe that cigarettes are hazardous to one's health."

Asked about a study that found smoking mothers gave birth to smaller babies than nonsmoking mothers, he responded: "Some women would prefer having smaller babies."

In 1976, when he visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for an African American exhibit partly underwritten by Philip Morris, he told the Los Angeles Times: "The fact remains that as the population grows, there continue to be smokers, and our sales are growing. We have devoted millions of dollars to researching a safe cigarette and so has the government.... If someone will tell us what to take out of cigarettes to make them safer but still taste good, we will do it."

Himself a smoker who eventually quit, Cullman was adamant that cigarettes be made of real tobacco rather than "some ersatz products" promoted as a healthful alternative.

Cullman aggressively marketed a filter cigarette but with a masculine twist: Marlboros.

"What was needed was a full-flavored filter brand that had a virile image," he wrote in his 1998 memoir, "I'm a Lucky Guy."

Although the brand was old -- originally aimed at women in the 1920s -- Philip Morris reformulated Marlboro as a new filtered cigarette packaged in a colorful red-and-white flip-top box. Under Cullman's direction, the company moved away from its traditional advertising featuring Johnny the bellboy paging "Philip Morris" and hired Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett to develop rugged "Marlboro Country."

By 1983, Cullman had made the cigarette dangling from each weathered wrangler's mouth the best-known product in the world, with red-and-white Marlboro billboards popping up from Times Square to rural sands along the Nile.

Cullman also built the Philip Morris Cos., now known as Altria Group Inc., into a diversified corporate giant, owner of General Foods, Kraft and Nabisco.

He also directed company profits into support for tennis and the arts.

As chairman of the U.S. Open in 1969 and 1970, Cullman made the cigarette his company marketed to women, Virginia Slims, the sponsor of the fledgling women's tour. He was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1990.

Under Cullman, Philip Morris spent millions each year backing such organizations as Dance Theatre of Harlem, Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Guggenheim and Metropolitan art museums. Cullman, an active conservationist, was a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey from 1976 to 1983.

Tobacco was a family business, but it began with cigars. The descendant of a German cigar maker, Cullman attended Yale, then worked at a cigar store in New York before he was sent to Havana to work in a cigar factory.

After serving as a gunnery sergeant in World War II, he took over a small cigarette company, Benson & Hedges, which made Parliament cigarettes and which his father had bought in 1941. When Philip Morris bought Benson & Hedges in 1954, Cullman was part of the deal. He joined Philip Morris as a vice president and rose to president and chief executive in 1957, chairman and chief executive in 1967 and chairman emeritus in 1978.

The widowed Cullman is survived by a daughter, Dorothy Treisman; two stepchildren, Tracy and Barnard Straus; two brothers, Edgar and Lewis; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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