News Flash: Cigarettes Harmful to Your Health

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If your company is a villain in one of history’s greatest public health disasters, it’s simply good business to flog yourself as painlessly and as publicly as possible — before someone else does. That's what appears to have happened Tuesday when, in a stunning admission of the obvious, Philip Morris acknowledged that cigarette smoking isn’t safe, that cigarettes are addictive and that those who indulge are far more likely to develop certain kinds of cancer than nonsmokers. The tobacco giant’s web site, while still sprinkled liberally with friendly references to its Marlboro brand, now hosts a page entitled "Health Issues for Smokers." The text emphasizes free choice and adult responsibility, but also lays bare the causative link between smoking and disease, albeit in the words of the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Surgeon General.

What’s behind this turnaround? The admissions are one part reparative public relations, one part preemptive strike. "The tobacco companies know that no one believed their old line anymore, that cigarettes were not addictive or dangerous," says TIME senior writer Adam Cohen. "The images of the tobacco CEOs denying the dangers of smoking play for laughs on the evening news." So they decided it was time to move on to a new tactic: admitting that a preponderance of evidence shows cigarettes to be risky, while leaving the actual language of disease to various government agencies. "This move is smart for Philip Morris from a legal standpoint as well," says Cohen. "Plaintiffs against the cigarette makers have been winning cases by divorcing themselves from the assumption of risk. The line is: If the cigarette companies won’t admit cigarettes are dangerous, how were we supposed to know they’d kill us?" Now that Philip Morris has admitted the danger, says Cohen, they may have released themselves from such liability. Other cigarette makers are looking to sidle up to the trough of redemption — the folks over at R. J. Reynolds are currently working on a "health issues" site as well.

Not that Big Tobacco honchos should pass around the cigars just yet. Whatever legal and p.r. pitfalls it may have avoided with this move, Philip Morris may also have just become an unwitting champion of attempts to classify tobacco as a drug, and thus be closely regulated. "This acknowledgment will definitely help the cause of regulation," says Cohen. "If something is addictive, it’s more likely to fall under FDA jurisdiction."