America's largest foodmaker and its biggest cigarette company for years have likened themselves to distant siblings, giants that just happened to be owned by the same parent company.
In fact, Kraft Foods Inc. and Philip Morris USA have pooled expertise in search of making more-alluring foods and cigarettes since the dawn of their corporate pairing two decades ago, a Tribune examination of tobacco-lawsuit documents has found.
Documents show Northfield-based Kraft collaborated on flavor issues with some of the same Philip Morris brain researchers who probed what gives cigarettes their kick. None of those scientists was more controversial than Frank Gullotta, a former top Philip Morris researcher whose brain experiments suggested the company knew more than it claimed about cigarettes' addictive nature.
The documents also reveal that Kraft and Philip Morris discussed investing jointly in brain scans to study how the brain processes tastes and smells. Food scientists even helped their tobacco counterparts make experimental cigarettes--working after-hours in a German coffee plant.
A Tribune series on obesity last year detailed Kraft's interest in brain science, including how the brain is rewarded by sweet and fatty foods. This report delves deeper into the collaboration between cigarette researchers and food scientists.
The records, which span a period from the mid-1980s to 2001, were public but buried among more than 3 million documents that Philip Morris turned over in settling tobacco litigation.
Kraft, as a food company, was not compelled to release documents. But available records from Philip Morris, specifically from the files of tobacco employees, provide a tantalizing glimpse into the interplay between food and tobacco scientists.
Their collaboration on brain research "certainly sounds ominous," said Lloyd Kolbe, an Indiana University health sciences professor who served on a federal panel that reported last year on the marketing of junk food to children. "We need to understand the nature of that relationship," he said.
As America grapples with an epidemic of obesity, some plaintiffs' lawyers would love to prove that junk food-makers manipulate their products to make it harder for customers to stop eating them.
Kraft has not been accused of such conduct in lawsuits. But other major food companies such as McDonald's have been sued for contributing to the obesity of children.
Kraft declined to answer specific questions about whether it has done or funded research on the brain areas known to play a role in addiction or controlling hunger. The company would not discuss any of its brain research in detail.
The maker of Oreo cookies, Jell-O pudding and Oscar Mayer wieners also would not reveal whether its work with cigarette scientists influenced Kraft products, which reaped $24.5 billion in sales in the first nine months of last year.
"We do not conduct or fund any research aimed at creating dependency upon any of our products, or limiting consumers' ability to control their eating behaviors," Nancy Daigler, a Kraft spokeswoman, said in a written statement. "Nothing in the documents that you've called to our attention suggests otherwise about the past."
However, a 1998 memo suggested that Kraft, Philip Morris and Miller Brewing, which were corporate siblings at the time, collaborate on foods and drinks "engineered to influence" a customer's mood or sense of fullness. It is unclear from the documents whether those companies acted on that suggestion.
Kraft declined to answer questions about the memo, which bore the initials of Jane V. Leland, a senior Kraft scientist and a leader for corporate synergy efforts. Leland referred calls to a Kraft spokeswoman.
Kraft, Philip Morris USA and corporate parent Altria Group Inc. all declined to answer questions about Gullotta, the former Philip Morris brain scientist.
Documents released in the tobacco-liability suits revealed his role supervising brain tests at a secret Philip Morris lab in Germany. Gullotta's work is cited in a pending U.S. Department of Justice fraud suit against the tobacco-makers as evidence that Philip Morris knew more about the addictive nature of cigarettes than the company told the public.
Gullotta was a driving force behind cross-company efforts to figure out how people perceive the tastes and smells of foods and cigarettes. Documents show Gullotta met in 1991 with Kraft's scientists in Glenview and Tarrytown, N.Y. In Glenview, Gullotta and Kraft neuroscientists discussed how to study nerve impulses using rats or human subjects. At Kraft's General Foods coffee division in New York, he consulted with researchers on how people perceive the smell of coffee and lectured about his work on how the brain processes flavor.
"I anticipate more interactions (collaborations?) with General Foods in the near future," Gullotta wrote.
He listed himself as a consultant to Kraft in a 1992 memo he wrote.
Two years earlier, Gullotta co-authored a memo titled "Raison d'etre"--French for "reason for being." In it, he and his colleagues outlined the importance of their electrophysiological studies, in which they measured brain activity by hooking up electrodes to smokers' scalps. The research showed how much nicotine was needed in order to trigger a feeling of "impact" in smokers--a sensation that helps explain why cigarettes are addictive.
In the same memo, Gullotta noted that Kraft had expressed interest in his work on brain responses to tastes and smells "as a means of understanding flavor differences in certain products." Gullotta, who retired in 2002, did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.
In general, Kraft's Daigler said it's not surprising some of its scientists "look for ways to exchange information, share best practices and identify efficiencies that reduce overall costs." She also noted, "There clearly was a shared interest among these employees in issues relating to flavor and aroma--issues that are relevant to a number of otherwise unrelated industries."
The primary goal of Kraft's research and development team, Daigler said, is "ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of our foods."
Still, Kraft and Philip Morris scientists traded ideas for studying the fine details of how the brain processes tastes and smells. A 1997 planning memo proposed investing in "neuroimaging," or brain scans, and research on sensory neuroreceptors, which are sites on brain cells that process smells and tastes. That synergy group included Jean Spence, now Kraft's research chief, and Dick Cox, Philip Morris USA's senior vice president for research and science.
The relationships between cigarette scientists and food researchers could play into the hands of plaintiffs' lawyers and their strategists. Among them is John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University who has plotted legal strategies against the makers of cigarettes and foods. He said extensive research links might make it easier to convince juries that food companies share responsibility for the obesity crisis.
"It becomes relevant not only because they are the same company, siblings in effect, but the very same scientists, some in the very same laboratories, are working side by side," Banzhaf said.
Other lawyers who took on the tobacco industry said the companies' collaboration could startle consumers who don't realize how similar the research agendas at food and tobacco companies can be.
"What seems to be happening is these companies said, `Hey, you guys are sort of in the same business,'" said Richard Daynard, a law professor at Northeastern University in Boston who helped formulate strategies for suing food and cigarette companies.
Like cigarettes, he said, processed foods "are highly engineered to make the consumer react in a particular way."
Kraft says it is responding to concerns about obesity by reformulating products, revamping marketing and providing more information to its customers. Those efforts, Daigler said, "are far more constructive ... than any lawsuit could be."
She noted that nearly all of the documents the Tribune found were old and available to the public since the late 1990s.
Philip Morris has released few documents since 2001, making it difficult to determine whether or how the cigarette-maker and Kraft have collaborated in recent years.
But the earlier documents show that the researchers traded tips on a range of sensory technology. At an intra-company workshop in 2000, Philip Morris scientists presented their findings on the chemical composition of smoke while Kraft researchers lectured on how they used a tool called an "electronic nose"--capable of detecting the chemicals in odors--in work on Capri Sun fruit-flavored drinks.
Weighing in on addiction
The documents do not show that Kraft employees researched cigarette addiction, but one researcher offered her opinion on that controversial topic. Kraft scientist Dorothy Chou in 1994 offered cigarette executives ways to argue that nicotine was not addictive.
In the memo to Philip Morris USA's research director, Chou raised objections to calling cigarettes addictive. Unlike alcohol, depressants or Valium, "withdrawal from nicotine never threatens physical well-being," she wrote, noting that her boss at Kraft had recommended she send her opinion to Philip Morris.
Just two years earlier, Chou strongly recommended Philip Morris fund a university study to probe whether cigarette smoking had "beneficial effects on Alzheimer's patients." She suggested specific ways of using brain scans in the study.
Chou, who retired in 1996, referred questions to officials at Kraft.
At times, food scientists aided cigarette development. Scientists from Kraft's Maxwell House coffee division in the mid-1980s helped Philip Morris make test batches of low-nicotine cigarettes in coffee labs in New York and Germany, using their expertise in taking caffeine out of coffee to extract nicotine from tobacco.
Such a cigarette wasn't healthier. Cigarettes kill by releasing carbon monoxide, tar and other chemicals that increase the risk of cancer, emphysema and other ailments. But research at the time showed that consumers thought low-nicotine cigarettes were healthier and would buy some based on that misguided belief.
"It should be noted that the health benefits linked to this product appear to be invalid/misconceptions," noted a 1988 market research report commissioned by Philip Morris USA. "The absence of information to the contrary works in the product's favor."
Philip Morris ultimately built its own plant to extract nicotine. The company test marketed but later dropped the product.
Kraft's Daigler sees nothing unusual about such cooperation. "It's been publicly understood for some time that the coffee industry's methods and equipment for making decaffeinated coffee were relevant to efforts to reduce nicotine levels in tobacco products," she said.
Controlling `pleasure drugs'
The contacts between Philip Morris and Kraft reflect how the companies viewed food and tobacco, said William Farone, former director of applied research at Philip Morris. Farone, who left the company in 1984 before it bought Kraft, said that from 1980 onward there were talks in executive meetings about acquiring coffee and food companies.
Farone, who has testified against his former employer in tobacco lawsuits, said in a recent interview that he believed the strategy was "to control all of the pleasure drugs that are not regulated."
Victor Han, a spokesman for Altria, now the parent company of Kraft and Philip Morris, said in a written statement that such a strategy was "unknown to us here." Han said Altria "diversified at that time as a means to improve growth and expand the scope of our businesses."
The company long has sought to downplay the links between its food and tobacco arms. "Altria's companies operate independently of each other," Han said. "Kraft manufactures and markets its own distinct products. Scientists at our operating companies may occasionally share ideas and expertise for the benefit of their respective businesses."
But the corporate links have caused headaches for the foodmaker. Anti-smoking activists in 1994 launched a boycott of Kraft products.
Philip Morris hired Burson-Marsteller, a public-relations concern, to gather intelligence on the activists. In preparing executives for a worst-case scenario, the PR firm dreamed up a possible jingle that protesters might sing to the tune of "I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener":
"I wish I were a stockholder of Kraft. That is what I truly want to be; cause if I were a stockholder of Kraft, I'd stop this cruel tragedy ... Boycott Kraft General Foods!"
The companies have worked to limit collateral damage from the tobacco arm's bad public image. In 2003 the parent company changed its name from Philip Morris Cos. to Altria Group Inc. Altria executives said they did so partly to clarify that the corporate parent was a holding company, not a cigarette-maker.
Now Kraft and Philip Morris are planning to part ways. Once the courts rule on some key tobacco suits, Altria, which owns nearly 87 percent of Kraft, is preparing to spin off the foodmaker entirely.
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Research elicits different reactions
Public documents related to tobacco lawsuits provide a glimpse into the interplay between scientists at Kraft and Philip Morris.
Their collaboration on brain research "certainly sounds ominous," said Lloyd Kolbe, an Indiana University health sciences professor.
"We do not conduct or fund any research aimed at creating dependency upon any of our products, or limiting consumers' ability to control their eating behaviors," Nancy Daigler, a Kraft spokeswoman, said in a written statement.
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Under the same umbrella
Kraft Foods, America's largest foodmaker, and Philip Morris USA, the biggest cigarette company in the U.S., are owned by Altria Group. According to company spokesman Victor Han, Altria's companies operate independently of each other. "Scientists at our operating companies may occasionally share ideas and expertise for the benefit of their respective businesses."
ALTRIA GROUP OF COMPANIES
Philip Morris International (100% ownership)
- International tobacco
- Produces seven of the top 20 best-selling global cigarette brands
Brands: Marlboro, Lark, Chesterfield, L&M
Philip Morris USA (100% ownership)
- Domestic tobacco
- Largest tobacco company in U.S. with half of the cigarette market's retail share
Brands: Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Parliament, Basic
Philip Morris Capital (100% ownership)
- Financial services
- Investment company that manages a portfolio of leveraged and direct finance assets
- Provides Altria with financial, tax and economic benefits
Kraft Foods (About 85% ownership)
- Food and beverage
- Largest branded food and beverage company with headquarters in the U.S. and second-largest in the world
Brands: Kraft cheeses, Maxwell House coffee, Oreo cookies, Oscar Mayer meats
Other interest: Altria holds a 28.7 percent stake in SABMiller, the world's second-largest brewer.
THE EVOLUTION OF ALTRIA
In 1902 Philip Morris & Co. is incorporated and later renamed Philip Morris.
1961: Philip Morris Overseas is renamed Philip Morris International.
1968: Philip Morris Domestic is renamed Philip Morris USA.
1970: Philip Morris acquires Miller Brewing Co.
1982: Philip Morris Credit is incorporated, later renamed Philip Morris Capital.
1985: Philip Morris Cos. is incorporated and becomes the publicly held holding company and parent of Philip Morris. Philip Morris Cos. acquires General Foods.
1988: Philip Morris Cos. acquires Kraft.
1989: Kraft and General Foods combine to form Kraft General Foods.
1990: Kraft General Foods acquires Jacobs Suchard, a leading European coffee and candy company.
1995: Kraft General Foods is renamed Kraft Foods.
2000: Philip Morris Cos acquires Nabisco, which becomes part of Kraft Foods.
2001: Kraft Foods completes $8.4 billion IPO. Philip Morris Cos. proposes to change its name to Altria Group.
2002: Shareholders approve name change to Altria Group. Miller Brewing Co. is merged into South African Breweries PLC, becoming SABMiller.
2003: Name change to Altria Group takes effect.
Source: Altria Group
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Go to chicagotribune.com/oreo to read documents related to this story and the Tribune's three-part series, "The Oreo, obesity and us."
TRIBUNE SPECIAL REPORT: A FOLLOW-UP