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Jewish World Review Nov. 30, 2001 / 15 Kislev, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

What's in a name? Assumptions that Americans are gullible -- OF all the questionable business decisions made during the war -- and there have been plenty so far -- perhaps the most intriguing has been made by Philip Morris.

Many large corporations have responded to the war by promptly laying off as many employees as they can get away with. Very patriotic -- the president of the United States told the country, "Let's roll," and apparently the big corporations took this to mean that heads must roll. So as Christmas approaches, hundreds of thousands of men and women, newly out of work, face the holidays with no paychecks.

At Philip Morris, the corporate decision was of a different kind. And maybe it is just a coincidence that the decision was made as war news dominated the front pages, so it did not receive as much coverage as it might have in quieter times.

Philip Morris said that it no longer wants to be known as Philip Morris. Now it wishes to be called Altria Group Inc.

The corporation's executives said that Altria -- the name comes from the Latin word "altus," which means high -- better reflects the company's diversified holdings, which include Kraft foods, Nabisco cookies and Miller beer. (The link to the Latin word for "high" is not intended to be associated with drunkenness, but with peak business performance.)

The real reason for the name change, many financial analysts have said, is to put some distance between Philip Morris and the product with which it is most closely associated, and with which it made its fortune: cigarettes. If the company is called Altria instead of Philip Morris, or so the theory goes, people will not think of cigarettes when they think of the company. Cigarettes don't have quite the allure they once did -- evidence of this can be found from courtrooms to hospital wards to graveyards.

So Philip Morris, as a corporation, wants to be Altria. An argument can be made that this is precisely the wrong decision.

Philip Morris probably should have strengthened its ties to cigarettes, not tried to fudge them. The name should have been lengthened to the Philip Morris Cigarette Co., or the Philip Morris Tobacco Co. The non-tobacco subsidiaries could have had their own names.

Why? Because the people who want to smoke cigarettes -- and, despite all the education and surgeon general's reports, there are millions of those people -- know what they desire: cigarettes. Granted, their desire may be fueled by addiction, but the desire is still there. And if that's your customer base, you don't run away from it by saying you're something you're not.

You don't see Hustler magazine changing its name to Backyard Gardening; if it did, it would confuse its customers. You, who are reading this, may not elect to read Hustler -- but those who do presumably do so of free will, and would not want the magazine to proclaim it was something else. So, too, you may not choose to smoke cigarettes -- but those who do presumably want to patronize a company that does not seem ashamed to sell the product.

The wartime setting for the name change is interesting. Wartime was once used by the tobacco companies to hook American fighting men on their products. Cigarettes were shipped overseas during World War II and given away to U.S. soldiers; U.S. tobacco companies unapologetically linked their products to the war effort. "Lucky Strike Green has gone to war!" one slogan proudly proclaimed; Pall Mall cigarettes ran an "On the land, in the air, on the sea" campaign. Thirty percent of all cigarettes manufactured in the U.S. were sent to the armed forces, causing shortages at home.

So after the war, the soldiers came home as confirmed smokers. In the years since, cigarettes have killed far more people than all the military men who died in combat in World War II. But the product is legal, and as long as it is, it is puzzling why one of its leading manufacturers would want to run away from what it manufactures. If Philip Morris doesn't want to produce cigarettes, fine -- but as long as it does, it should probably pretend to be proud of that fact.

Altria has gone to war? It just doesn't have the right ring to it. And besides: Smoking is now outlawed in all Department of Defense workplaces.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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