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A Corporate Giant's Smoke Screen
Published on Saturday, February 25, 2006 by the Boston Globe
A Corporate Giant's Smoke Screen
by Derrick Z. Jackson

When Phillip Morris announced in late 2001 that it would change its name to Altria, then-CEO Geoffrey Bible said on CNBC, ''we wanted to bring more clarity to what seemed to be confusion in the marketplace around the name Philip Morris and actually what we did." Bible denied that the company wanted to create confusion and amnesia over the fact that the top business of Altria, despite its Kraft Foods and Miller beer holdings, remained one of humanity's most lethal products, cigarettes.

In 2004, Altria's senior vice president of corporate affairs, Steven Parrish, told the Los Angeles Times that his company's massive giving to charitable causes was ''not part of a public relations strategy." He said this despite the company's improvement from 2001 to 2004 on the Harris Interactive Reputation Quotient from 59th place to 48th place.

Last year, Altria ranked 50th. Its overall improvement hardly constitutes membership in the corporate responsibility hall of fame, but any day you can kill people with your products and still rank above Martha Stewart Living, Sprint phones, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch/Shell, Halliburton and United Airlines, that is darn good public relations.

In 2001, Parrish told The New York Times that the change to Altria was derived from ''altus" for ''high" in an effort to convey high performance. He denied that the name was picked to conveniently sound like ''altruism." ''There certainly was and is no intent to convey altruism," Parrish said. He of course proceeded to say that altruism ''is very much a part of the company and the culture."

This week marked just how much Altria is getting away with hiding its heinous business behind altruism. Second Harvest, the nation's largest network of food-banks and soup kitchens, published a report that said 25.35 million Americans used food relief last year. That number is up 9 percent from 2001 and 18 percent from 1997, when the number of people needing food was 21.4 million.

This alone raises important questions about America's priorities at a time that President Bush and his Republican-majority Congress have slashed many programs for the poor. It raises questions about how a nation could have so much food around that we have an obesity epidemic and yet so many who go hungry.

But just because the survey is important does not mean we can ignore the dirty fine print. Actually it is not fine print at all. Right on the second page of the 20-page executive summary of the Second Harvest report, right under a large picture of a cute child, the survey's ''Statement of Sponsorship" says, ''Since 1990, the Altria family of companies has been a leading supporter of hunger relief."

In the press release for the survey, Jennifer Goodale, Altria's vice president of contributions, said, ''Food is a basic human need and right. As the sponsor of Hunger in America 2006, we hope the study will inform public policy, energize the response among the public and private sectors and ultimately provide a better understanding of the complex issue of hunger and the millions of people it affects."

Talk about blowing smoke. It means very little to care about 25 million hungry when Altria is the world's largest cigarette maker, the chief engine in an industry that currently contributes to 5 million deaths a year worldwide, a number that is expected to double in the coming years in its invasion of the developing world. You do not hear Goodale saying she hopes that the death toll from her parent product will inform public policy and energize a response from the public and private sector.

Two days before the hunger study was released, Goodale's bosses were preening about Altria's profits rising 11 percent, from $9.4 billion in 2004 to $10.4 billion last year. Altria senior vice president and chief financial officer Dinny Devitre said, ''Strong income gains from our tobacco business more than compensated for weaker results at Kraft Foods."

''Weaker results" at Kraft means cutting 13,500 jobs by 2008, 13 percent of its workforce. Altria claims altruism in feeding the poor while cigarettes feed its own food bank.

The best measure of how well it is getting away with this game is this: In a Nexis search, neither the Associated Press, NPR, nor any other news organization that reported on the Second Harvest study mentioned the sponsorship of Altria.

2006 The Boston Globe


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