Think global

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Few should be surprised international tobacco companies are quietly talking about proposing a voluntary rollback in their marketing activities outside the U.S., as we reported last week. Courage is not the first word that comes to mind; smart or pragmatic will do.

Constitutional free-speech protections offer some shelter for truthful tobacco advertising in the U.S. But the rest of the world is becoming steadily more hostile to unfettered tobacco marketing. With few legal firewalls to protect tobacco ads, anti-tobacco groups are freer to press for absolute ad bans. And they are.

It's hard to imagine how Philip Morris Cos. and British American Tobacco (which, along with Japan Tobacco, are currently involved in these talks) can do less in markets outside the U.S. than they have voluntarily agreed to do in this country to reduce youth exposure to tobacco promotion. Not unless they want to appear as cynical as their critics try to paint them to be. Whatever the tobacco companies eventually propose will at least give tobacco advertisers a starting point for conversations with regulators outside the U.S., particularly in countries where tobacco controls are not now very extensive.

Anti-tobacco groups have denounced as a charade the idea of these tobacco companies offering to control their global marketing. They prefer governments simply dictate to the industry. That may yet happen in some markets, but tobacco advertisers would be foolish not to seek a seat at the table when their futures are being determined. Whether they will be welcome there will turn on whether they can show they are serious about finding new ways to responsibly and legally sell an unsafe product.

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