Philip Morris Does Horrible Job Of Defending Itself After John Oliver Mocking

The new Jeff billboards posted at a bus stop in Montevideo, Uruguay.

The new Jeff billboards posted at a bus stop in Montevideo, Uruguay.

On Sunday night, John Oliver called out the tobacco industry, and particularly Philip Morris, for the practice of threatening small and poor countries with complicated, expensive international trade lawsuits if they try to strictly regulate cigarette marketing. But while Big Tobacco has the coffers to pay for costly legal battles, it does a really poor job of trying to defend its actions.

In response to an L.A. Times article on the Oliver mocking — which not only introduced the new Marlboro Man, Jeff The Diseased Lung In A Cowboy Hat, but also the wildly popular hashtag #JeffWeCan — Philip Morris issued a statement that tries to minimize the seriousness of the claims made in the story while simultaneously acknowledging that the company’s products kill people.

First off, the statement takes the approach of trying to negate the 18-minute, thoroughly researched report by pointing out that it dares to come from someone with a sense of humor:

“’Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ is a parody show, known for getting a laugh through exaggeration and presenting partial views in the name of humor. The segment includes many mischaracterizations of our company, including our approach to marketing and regulation, which have been embellished in the spirit of comedic license.”

Okay… so this should be where the very serious folks at Philip Morris go point by point and explain where Oliver exaggerated and embellished, but they don’t. It’s a classic non-response in which the accused tried to undercut the accuser’s argument by claiming he can’t possibly be providing the truth.

Philip Morris does not deny using threats of lawsuits to keep countries Uruguay from enacting tougher regulations on cigarette packaging.

It does, in an after-note, link to a 2014 explainer post from Philip Morris International saying that Uruguay was violating a trade agreement with Switzerland by requiring a warning label that covered 80% of the packaging.

Then there’s this brief gem from the statement:

“While we recognize the tobacco industry is an easy target for comedians, we take seriously the responsibility that comes with selling a product that is an adult choice and is harmful to health.”

The tobacco industry is an easy target for comedians because it has a long history of risible behavior. And how can Philip Morris expected to be taken seriously when it readily admits that the products it sells are “harmful to health”?

Philip Morris doesn’t need to blame comedians when it makes statements like this:
“We support and comply with thousands of regulations worldwide — including advertising restrictions, penalties for selling tobacco products to minors, and substantial health warnings on packaging.”

First off, the tobacco industry doesn’t support these regulations. It only supports the ones it can’t fight in a courtroom. Once it loses a battle — or realizes a battle can’t be won — then suddenly Big Tobacco, just like every other heavily regulated industry, claims to support and abide by the rules.

For example, Big Tobacco went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to fight graphic warning labels — which were mandated by the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act all the way back in 2009. And even after SCOTUS rejected the industry’s appeal, Philip Morris’ partner-in-carcinogens Lorillard stated that “there will obviously be a good deal more litigation to come on this topic.”

It’s been nearly two years since that rare tobacco industry legal loss and we still have no idea if or when the labeling provision of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act will be enacted.

So no, the tobacco industry has absolutely no respect for attempts to educate and inform consumers. They just have respect for the few regulations they haven’t been successfully able to defeat in court.

Philip Morris would also have you believe that after more than a century of selling cigarettes, it suddenly cares about customers’ health:

“We’re investing billions into developing and scientifically assessing a portfolio of products that have the potential to be less harmful and that are satisfying so smokers will switch to them.”

Finally, in its closing sentence, Philip Morris gets into some actual specifics of why it takes such drastic actions to protect its products — aside from the billions it makes by giving people cancer and lung disease:

“And, like any other company with a responsibility to its business partners, shareholders and employees, we ask only that laws protecting investments, including trademarks, be equally applied to us.”

That’s honestly the best Philip Morris and Big Tobacco can come up with — We’ve spent a lot of money and have a lot of investors so please don’t mess with our packaging because it might cause us to earn smaller profits.

It’s an argument that might be tenable if cigarettes did anything other than poison the people who buy them — or live in the same house with them.

Anyway, here is the full Last Week Tonight piece that has already been seen watched nearly 2 million times since yesterday morning: