To judge from Philip Morris’ sanctimonious reaction to extracting a narrow apology from ABC News for a report on alleged nicotine spiking of cigarettes, one would hardly guess the company purveys products that cause death and disease.
Executives and lawyers for the company reportedly celebrated over salmon and cigars at New York’s chic Rainbow Room, where one attorney proclaimed his pride at having stood up for Merit and Marlboro brands--"these symbols of American quality.”
Then the company took out full-page ads in major newspapers, headlined “Apology accepted” and implying that the press is often wrong about the dangers of tobacco. “Fairness and a sincere interest in the truth” are all that is wanted by Philip Morris, which still disputes the obvious truth that cigarettes cause lung cancer, heart disease and other deadly ills.
ABC’s “Day One” program had claimed that Philip Morris artificially spiked cigarettes with outside sources of nicotine. ABC now concedes that this was not true, but it holds to the “principal focus” of its report that cigarette companies use reconstituted tobacco to manipulate nicotine levels to keep people smoking.
Just why ABC chose to settle the $10-billion Philip Morris libel suit, over the objections of its journalists, is a matter of debate. Some have suggested that the decision may have been influenced by the New York-based network’s fear of losing before a presumably hostile jury in tobacco-producing Virginia.
Suffice it to say that ABC handed the tobacco industry a major public relations victory at a time the cigarette makers are fighting a proposed rule by the Food and Drug Administration to declare nicotine a drug and to restrict advertising and availability to teen-agers. It is also fending off a major class-action suit, based in part on internal tobacco company documents that appear to show the companies have long known nicotine is addictive.
The news media must not be intimidated by the ABC settlement. The issue is not journalistic spiking, which regrettably occurs sometimes, particularly in the fiercely competitive television arena. The issue is cigarette smoking, a public health calamity that causes more than 400,000 American deaths a year.