A Brief Analysis of the Brown and Williamson Website: An Effort to Taint Juries?by Cliff Douglas
On April 8, 1999, the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company (B&W) ran a full-page ad in USA Today announcing with great fanfare the launching of a web site (www.brownandwilliamson.com) that addresses numerous controversial topics that are central issues in most, if not all, of the individual and class action cases now pending against the tobacco industry. The primary theme of the web site and the advertisement for it is that B&W is a responsible and honest company that has long had the best interests of consumers at heart.
B&W is publicizing its website, among other places, in its new advertisements for Carlton cigarettes, whose tag line states, "Isn't it time you started thinking about number one?" The line is, of course, a play on words. It refers, on the one hand, to the fact that the cigarette delivers 1 mg. of "tar" according to the discredited FTC testing method. More insidiously, it encourages addicted smokers who are worried about their health to switch down to Carlton from their higher-tar brand in order to benefit their health, although the ad also carries the caution, in exceedingly small type, that "It is not our intention to suggest that a 1 mg. 'tar' cigarette is safer than other cigarettes."
While more can be said about the disreputable Carlton campaign, the public relations campaign surrounding the company's website seems, among other things, to be part of a concerted effort to influence not only the general public but, more specifically, those serving on juries hearing legal cases against the industry. While some observers on the pro-health side had credulous reactions to the announcement of B&W's website, they may not have considered this particular issue. The tobacco cases now pose such a great threat to B&W and the rest of the industry that it is reasonable to assume that this campaign has as one of its major goals the influencing of juries.
Perhaps the industry hopes that sitting jurors will read the papers, watch TV and log onto the Internet and, thus, be exposed to things that they are not supposed to see while they are serving on a trial. Of course, members of the public who may someday become jurors are far more likely to see the website and/or the PR campaign surrounding it, since they obviously are under no restriction prior to being selected for jury service. A close look at the new web site discloses a slick effort to make B&W look responsible and caring and to inoculate it against liability and punitive damages. It appears to be a blatant effort to taint juries against the sick and dying people who have sued the tobacco companies.
There are many examples that highlight the manipulative character of the B&W website. They demonstrate some of the ways in which B&W appears to be seeking to "educate" jurors or potential jurors about key issues outside the restrictive confines of the courtroom. While each of the following examples of the material found on B&W's website may sound persuasive at face value -- the standard goal of any propaganda -- each is misleading because it omits relevant information or contradicts what B&W's own internal documents say about the company's knowledge and conduct. The point of this analysis is not to provide specific rebuttals to each example of B&W's legal and public relations spin, however, but simply to expose some examples of the company's doublespeak and to highlight what I believe to be the deceptive nature of its website.
In the "Courthouse" section, B&W says that a court order precludes the company from commenting on the Engle class action case in Florida. This superficial attempt to show compliance with the gag order imposed by the court in that case is specious in light of the other material found in the website. For example, the section entitled "Courthouse: Individual Case Courtroom," trots out some of the industry's main legal defenses in the cases brought against it: Consumers know the health risks, which are common knowledge, and smoking is a personal choice. B&W also notes that it has won almost every case, a convenient message to the juror or future juror who reads this that it would be perfectly appropriate to vote with the industry again.
The section called "Hot Topics" provides other good examples. Some of its subsections include:
"Smoking and Disease" - This subsection excuses B&W's failure to produce safer cigarettes.
"Nicotine and Addiction" - Here B&W makes many of the industry's typical arguments on the question of addiction.
"Health Warnings" - This makes the industry's case that the public has been well-informed about the health risks since the 1950s.
"Tar & Nicotine Yields" - B&W asserts here that it has been responsible in using the FTC test method to inform consumers.
"Low Yield Cigarettes and Smoker Compensation" - This subsection asserts that the industry has lowered tar levels in compliance with health authorities' encouragement. It also justifies the use of the FTC ratings, implies -- by referencing several Surgeon General's reports -- that there has been a good deal of information available to the public for many years about these issues, and generally presents B&W as having acted as a good corporate citizen that has complied with the recommendations of health experts, tried to make potentially safer cigarettes available to the public, and talked honestly and publicly since the 1960s about the fact that smokers may inhale different yields than the FTC ratings.
"Brown and Williamson's Research into Less Hazardous Cigarettes" - Here, the company makes the case in some detail that it has tried its best to produce safer cigarettes.
"Tobacco Ingredient Information" - The discussion here says, in essence, "See, we have nothing to hide. We've been forthcoming for years." It also uses the Department of Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General as foils for the company's argument that all of the important information has been turned over and made public.
"Cigarette Tobacco Ingredients" - B&W claims that it has been forthcoming about the use and health effects of cigarette additives.
"Quitting Smoking" - The company repeats the claim that smoking is simply a "personal choice," essentially repeats the argument that the public has long known about the health risks, implicitly rebuts the addiction argument by citing that almost 45 million people have quit smoking, likens cigarette smoking to coffee drinking, and seeks to gain innocence by association by referring readers to the American Cancer Society and other organizations to assist them in quitting smoking.
"Youth Responsibility Programs" - Here, the company touts its responsible approach to protecting children against cigarette smoking.
"Consumer Information Center" - Finally, B&W presents itself as being available and responsive to the public, dating back to 1979, ready "round the clock" to answer consumer queries about the company's products.
Another section is entitled "Marketing Principles and Practices," which asserts that B&W markets cigarettes only to adults and cites as support the oft-violated industry advertising and marketing code.
A section entitled "Business Ethics" presents B&W as having a "strong legal and ethical underpinning for our business." It cites as an "apparent contradiction" the fact that "public health advocates, funded in many cases by government agencies, decry smoking as a major health hazard and work to eliminate the use of tobacco products."
Several other sections, under the rubric of "Charitable Contributions" and "Community Involvement," are designed to show what a wonderful corporate citizen B&W is. In these sections, B&W dredges up numerous examples of its strategically placed philanthropic efforts to prove to the reader (including, one surmises, members of juries) how thoughtful and humane B&W really is. The presentation is impressive.
The Brown and Williamson website bears careful examination by consumers and the media - with a very skeptical eye. On the other hand, it does not bear examination by sitting juries who, as Brown and Williamson should know, it is improper to target with propaganda while a trial is in progress.
August 26, 1999
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