Inside the Philip Morris campaign to ‘normalize’ a tobacco device

FILE PHOTO: A screenshot shows Un Caffe Michalovce in Slovakia promoting itself as an ÒIQOS Friendly PlaceÓ in an Instagram post January 26, 2018, one way that Philip Morris International Inc markets the device. Un Caffe Michalovce via REUTERS.

(Reuters) – At Germany’s Bambi Awards for the media industry in November, celebrities posed for red-carpet photos against a backdrop of established luxury brands. Alongside the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Swiss watchmaker Chopard was a newer name: IQOS, a “reduced risk” heated-tobacco device sold by cigarette maker Philip Morris International Inc.

Across Europe, Asia and South America, the tobacco firm has affixed the IQOS brand to music festivals and art exhibits. The company also markets through IQOS lounges at mountainside resorts in the Pyrenees and in fashionable neighborhoods of Rome. Throughout Europe, it has partnered with “IQOS friendly” bars and restaurants – closed to cigarettes but open to IQOS.

Such promotions are part of a wide-ranging “normalization” strategy by Philip Morris (PM.N) to scrub its image as a purveyor of cancer-causing cigarettes and present its new smoking alternatives as youthful, upscale lifestyle products, according to a ten-month study by tobacco researchers at Stanford University, who shared it exclusively with Reuters before its release on Friday. The marketing strategy mimics that of tobacco companies in the mid-20th century, when they started associating cigarettes with Hollywood and high society.

“Philip Morris, as a company name, is somewhat of a pariah,” said Robert Jackler, a professor who led the study and heads Stanford’s Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. “IQOS is an attempt to sanitize their product line.”

The Stanford researchers said their study was spurred in part by a May 2019 Reuters investigation that found Philip Morris had used young online personalities, including a 21-year-old woman in Russia, to promote IQOS. The company’s internal marketing standards prohibit it from using youth-oriented celebrities or “models who are or appear to be under the age of 25.” The Reuters report prompted the company to acknowledge it had violated its own policy and to suspend its use of social media influencers.

The Stanford study found that, although the company suspended its “most visible” social-media influencer programs, IQOS marketing continues to stray substantially from its corporate standards on youth-oriented marketing

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