Magazines should consider kicking the tobacco ads habit

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Tobacco marketers in the U.S. have no access to most of the advertising pathways used to touch consumers, leaving magazines as one of the last outlets through which they peddle their deadly weapons. But now that a Philip Morris Cos. tobacco unit has unbelievably boasted about killing its customers, it's time for publishers to ask themselves whether they're comfortable providing a platform for cigarette sellers to deliver come-ons to new victims.

The right of tobacco companies to advertise is not at issue. For as long as they have a legal product, they're free to market it. But media companies also have the freedom to decide which ads they will and won't accept. It would be wrong for government to dictate what a magazine's policy should be. But it's perfectly reasonable for the rest of us to ask publishers whether they want to continue to take money from companies that show such incredible indifference to the lives of their readers.

If you're not up to speed, the Philip Morris International affiliate in the Czech Republic issued a report indicating smoking-related illnesses are actually a boon rather than a drain on the economy. That's because smokers who drop dead early relieve the government of the burden of paying for housing and health care.

Yes, the same morons who once famously denied there was any proof that tobacco is harmful now boast that tobacco's killing efficiency is an economic asset. By this logic, school massacres are an effective solution for dealing with overcrowded classrooms.

After The Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of the Philip Morris study, the company-which has been trying hard to rehabilitate its bad-boy image-apologized, saying its funding of the study was "a terrible mistake." CEO Geoffrey Bible, in a letter to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, said the study "exhibited ... a complete and unacceptable disregard of basic human values." Truth, at last, from a tobacco giant.

Until now, I've thought the notion that tobacco companies were inherently evil entities was a bit too cartoonish. In the end, these are businesses marketing a legal product. Adult consumers are free to make their own decisions-about whether to smoke, drink alcohol or eat fatty foods for that matter-with full knowledge of the dangers involved in each activity. But the Philip Morris study in the Czech Republic is so contemptible it makes it hard to view tobacco companies as anything other than villains worthy of being despised.

Given that, it's fair to ask publishers to examine whether it's really worth the money. Because of pressure on tobacco marketing, category spending is already in a dramatic decline from which it won't recover, lessening the industry's dependence on Marlboro money. In the early 1990s, tobacco companies were among the leading spenders in magazines, contributing $317 million in revenues in 1995, according to Publishers Information Bureau. By last year, spending had reached $400 million, but the category had fallen from the top tier of magazine spenders. In the first half of this year, tobacco revenues plummeted by 50% to $115 million in magazines, largely the result of Philip Morris voluntarily yanking ads from magazines with sizeable youth audiences.

Of course there's more at stake here for media sellers, who also count on cash injections from Philip Morris subsidiaries Miller Brewing Co. and Kraft Foods. If they reject the cigarette ads, do they risk kissing off revenue from those units as well?

There are already a number of magazines that won't run cigarette ads, including Good Housekeeping and the health-oriented titles published by Rodale. They've thrived despite never developing an addiction to tobacco money. Maybe more magazine publishers will decide it's time to break themselves-and the readers to whom they are accountable-of a disgusting habit.

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