Philip Morris acts on instinct

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Altria's abandonment of free commercial speech has to sting ad groups.

After years of going to bat for the tobacco industry in a very unpopular fight, the American Advertising Federation, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies watched as Altria's Philip Morris practically danced a jig to welcome a bill from Sen. Ted Kennedy that would give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory control over both tobacco and its marketing.

The ad groups probably cared little for tobacco to begin with and were loath to take up the banner for a known carcinogen sold by companies that, in decades past, were far from responsible in their marketing. But the ad groups took up that banner precisely because tobacco is still a legal substance (an argument for a later date) and if marketing for one legal substance is subjected to the draconian measures offered here, it might not be long before do-gooders like Mr. Kennedy go after fattening food, candy or alcohol.

For standing on principle, the ad groups were burned by Philip Morris.

But they would do well to remember the story of the scorpion and the frog, in which the scorpion, after persuading a skeptical frog to ferry him across the river, stings the frog halfway to the opposite bank. When the dying frog asks why, the scorpion replies, "It was simply my nature to do so."

Philip Morris, above all things, is a company. Its mission is to make money. As the No. 1 company in tobaccoland, it can afford to watch its competition hamstrung by regulations. If R.J. Reynolds and others are forbidden from advertising, innovating in package design or thinking of other ways to go to market, they can't gain ground. Altria stockholders, in fact, should be pleased with the company's embrace of the proposed regulations-for now, at any rate.

Philip Morris should keep in mind that the frog wasn't the only one to die in that story. And now that it has abandoned ad groups, a strong ally in an unpopular fight, it shouldn't expect sympathy or aid when the government does make tobacco illegal.
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