This ain’t no ‘puff piece’: John Safran takes aim at Philip Morris and doesn’t miss

John Safran gestures with both hands while seated on a stage in Christchurch.

Jeremy Lasek – PHAA

John Safran has made a career out of probing society’s fringes for satire. Now the perpetual provocateur takes on the biggest cigarette company on the planet.

Three years ago, tobacco giant Philip Morris shocked the world when it announced it was moving away from cigarettes and would campaign to ‘unsmoke the world’.

The PR pitch was impressive.

“We’re dedicated to doing something very dramatic – replacing cigarettes with the smoke free products that we’re developing and selling,” the company’s statement said.

“That’s why we’ve invested more than USD 8.1 billion in research and development, and have more than 930 dedicated scientists, engineers and technicians developing and assessing potentially less harmful alternatives to cigarettes”.

Note the key word ‘potentially’.

The company claimed it would be the biggest shift in its history, but was the “right one for our customers, our company, our shareholders, and society.”

It’s masterful spin, probably created by Philip Morris’s PR pen to pretty much allow the company to keep doing what it always has. Many people bought it.

But not John Safran, satirist, documentary-maker and author. He turned that spin into his latest book, Puff Piece.

Philip Morris’s new ‘health enterprise’

On a recent episode of Q+A on ABC-TV, Safran told host Virginia Trioli that Philip Morris had claimed it was exiting cigarettes to “relaunch as a health enterprise, and they were going to try to get the one billion smokers, their own customers, off cigarettes.”

Safran said when he first heard this news, he was shocked.

‘At first, I thought maybe this is like the fall of the Berlin Wall, or the end of apartheid…and it’s actually going to happen,” he recalled.

“So I snooped around a bit, and you wouldn’t believe it; you can’t take the makers of Marlboro cigarettes on face value.”

In May 2020, as the pandemic started to take hold across much of Europe, the European Union banned the manufacture and sale of menthol cigarettes in the Union’s 27 member countries. This regulatory move was predicated on the view that such a ban would discourage people from starting smoking or encourage them to quit – thus contributing to general public health.

“It was going to be the first step in banning all cigarettes across Europe,” Safran told Q+A.

“For Philip Morris it was going to be the beginning of the end, and so they came up with this strategy of introducing a new product…that they say isn’t a cigarette, it’s a ‘HeatStick’.

“This is tobacco rolled in paper with a filter at one end that you put between your lips, inhaling tobacco and nicotine into your lungs. You say ‘why is that not a cigarette?’ And they say ‘it’s a heat stick’.

“And it worked. So, all over Europe now you cannot buy menthol cigarettes, but you can buy menthol tobacco rolled in paper with a filter at one end. It just goes to show you’ve got to be on your toes, and no-one reported on this,” Safran said.

A history of manipulation

In the 1960s and 1970s. public health scientists and officials encouraged smokers to switch to low-tar and low-nicotine cigarette brands. They had been persuaded by an apparent commitment by tobacco companies to develop a ‘less hazardous cigarette’.

However, the tobacco industry concealed its own research which showed these modified products would lead to ‘compensatory’ smoking behaviours, such as inhaling more strongly, or taking more frequent puffs, and not in fact reducing the harms of smoking.

In the 1990s, harm reduction claims were made for early ‘heat not burn’ tobacco products, although these were not commercially successful.

Historians of public health have warned that, given the tobacco industry’s past misleading use of harm reduction claims to further its commercial and policy goals, ‘tobacco harm reduction strategies’ need to be approached with care, and be supported by robust scientific evidence.

Why he wrote this story

“Bafflingly, considering cigarettes remain the number one health crisis in the world – taking out eight million people a year – Philip Morris has pulled off this (latest) ruse without anyone, including the media, noticing,” Safran told Booktopia.

“This was partially because all eyes were on the vape crisis; partially because smoking sounds like such an old issue. But all that cancer in all those people is as new and relevant as it ever was.”

STOP PRESS: Philip Morris International and Altria have been banned from importing or selling Iqos tobacco device in the United States, CNBC reported on 30 September.

Puff Piece: How Philip Morris set vaping alight (and burned down the English language) by John Safran (Penguin Books Australia) is out now.

Photo by Donna Robertson shows John Safran speaking at the WORD Christchurch Shifting Points literary festival. Source: Christchurch City Libraries

Leave a Reply