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The Buzz, 6-26: Words get in the Way
Altria: Bringing Chocolate, Dance, and Cancer into Our Lives Every Day

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

What's in a name? If the name is Philip Morris, Inc., plenty. Besides largesse to dance organizations, the name of the largest cigarette company in the world is also associated with cancer, multi-billion dollar verdicts against it for falsely claiming its "Light" cigarettes are safer than its normal brands, and charges that it aggressively markets its cigarettes to kids. It's no wonder, then, that the company (which also owns Kraft Foods) decided to change its name to the more innocuous "Altria" in January, prompting the wags at www.satire.com to 'report': "Just days after Philip Morris declared it will change its name to the Altria Group, lung cancer today announced it will change its name to Philip Morris. According to lung cancer officials, the chance to snap up a brand that is more widely associated with lung cancer than lung cancer itself was too enticing to pass up." Or, as Andy Borowitz headlined his column: "Philip Morris, Now Called Altria, Changes Name of Cigarettes to 'Health Stix'; Tar, Nicotine renamed 'Sugar and Spice'."

We asked Karen Brosius, director of media relations for Phillip Morris, Inc. -- er, excuse me, "Altria" -- to explain the reasoning for the name change. "We made this change to help clarify our corporate structure," said Brosius. "It was hard for people to udnerstand it, when the parent company had the same name as the tobacco businesses. At the same time, the new name reflects the evolution on the business side, which, over time, has grown through acquisitions of companies such as General Foods, Kraft, Post Cereals, Oscar Mayer and, most recently, Nabisco.... Altria's operating companies manage more than 90 $100 million brands, of which 12 are $1 billion brands. In France, some of our food products we market are coffee (Jacques Vabre and Carte Noire) and chocolate (Cote D'Or and Van Houten cocoa)."

I also asked Ms. Brosius if by any chance the dance organizations who benefit from the company's donations would no longer be crediting "Philip Morris" but "Altria." "You're exactly right," she answered. During the 2002-2003 season, according to the company, more than 100 dance organizations received a total of $1.8 million from PM. In the last thirty years, the company has given more than $30 million to dance troupes, presenters, and service organizations. This year's recipients include the American Dance Festival, Houston Ballet, Buglisi-Foreman Dance, American Ballet Theatre, Jane Comfort, Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Garth Fagan Dance.

And finally, I posed this question to Ms. Brosius: "Is this a way for Philip Morris Companies Inc., which is after all most associated with a cancerous substance, to offer its philanthropic beneficiaries a name to which they can credit the donations -- Altria -- which doesn't have the associations of a product that kills people?" Not at all! "It was because we saw that it was confusing to a whole lot of people who thought the tobacco company owned everything else, when it's always been a diversified company with a lot of other investments."

In fact, a visit to the company's web site confirms that the entity formerly known as Philip Morris Inc. comprises four companies: Philip Morris USA Inc, Philip Morris International Inc. Philip Morris Capital Corporation, and Kraft Foods. The web site includes the claims that Philip Morris USA is the largest cigarette company in the US, and that Philip Morris International is the most profitable international company.

The bottom line is that, call it what you will, this is a company whose primary product, cigarettes, kills people. It's also a company whose marketing practices have been questioned. If dance companies and theaters need to accept some of the profits from such an entity in order to survive, it's not for me to judge them; the Dance Insider once applied for grant consideration from Philip Morris itself. But let's call a spade a spade, and not buy into Philip Morris's attempt to veil one of the main deadly sources of its income.

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