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RICHMOND, Va.-Philip Morris Cos. Chairman Michael Miles last week pledged a strong defense of the marketer's tobacco franchise, which remains under siege from anti-tobacco shareholders and the government.

Whether by filing a $10 billion libel suit against ABC or flooding the White House and Congress with shareholder letters objecting to higher tobacco taxes, Mr. Miles said Philip Morris would fight back. His stand won him plaudits from not only stockholders but also Wall Street.

That support is especially key, given the depressed status of Philip Morris stock and the rumored split of its tobacco and food divisions.

"Maybe the pendulum has swung too far against tobacco, and their fighting back might help them competitively, not only the company but their Marlboro brand," said Leigh Ferst, senior analyst at Prudential Securities. "That new offensive of theirs might, over a long period of time, help them prevent things like advertising restrictions."

The Philip Morris annual meeting included pleas from anti-tobacco shareholders to refocus the $60 billion marketer's attention on food.

And while Mr. Miles, in response to a shareholder inquiry, said he knew nothing of reports that the company is working on a nicotine-free tobacco plant, a company spokesman said a research paper on the subject is forthcoming.

Mr. Miles also defended his controversial 1993 decision to slash prices on Marlboro and other premium brands. He acknowledged the move was costly-it drained $2.4 billion from revenue-but said Philip Morris' yearend share of the tobacco market was a record 45.5%. Marlboro also reached an all-time market-share high of 27.4%, he said.

"The fact that our brands are gaining share, even at premium prices, goes a long way, I believe, toward debunking all of the 1993 media reports that premium quality, premium-price brands are dead," he said. "Some competitors' brands may be dead, but our brands are alive and well."

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