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October 1994

The smoking dilemma: will Philip Morris's art support outlive its critics?

The tobacco giant remains one of the most important private funders of the arts in the US

Grim message: protestors outside Philip Morris’s headquarters in New York in 2001 Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In spite of intense scrutiny from the United States Congress, a management shake-up, pressure to isolate its tobacco operations in the United States from its other businesses, and concerns about the ethics of marketing a lethal product, Philip Morris Companies Inc. remains one of the most important private funders of the arts in the United States.

Projects in 1994 include exhibitions of the works of Horace Pippin, Jacob Lawrence, and Louise Bourgeois, as well as the “Origins of Impressionism” show this autumn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Philip Morris sponsored the exhibition programme and activities for the inaugural year of the American Center in Paris and the year-long festival of Korea that toured the US through August 1994.

Any doubts about the extent of that sponsorship are put to rest by a glossy 135-page volume celebrating Philip Morris’s largesse over the past thirty-five years and listing the many awards the firm has been given. The report did not include figures specifying the amount that the company had paid out. Those sums are not public, but in an interview last year, Stephanie French, Philip Morris’s vice president for corporate contributions and cultural affairs, pointed out that the firm’s policy has been to devote some one per cent of its pre-tax profits to philanthropy. In recent years, that has amounted to some $15 million annually.

Every time [tobacco companies] give money and have their money accepted by an arts institution or university, a certain amount of that institution’s credibility goes to them

The cultural and political range of those contributions is broad. While the firm sponsors car and motorboat races for one tier of its market, Philip Morris also targets innovative arts projects for funding. It is the sole funder of a midtown Manhattan branch of the Whitney Museum of American Art. In recent years, the company has paid special attention to black and Latino artists (Lawrence, Pippin, Frida Kahlo, and many others). Researchers call this strategy target-marketing, and point out that American blacks smoke in disproportionately high numbers and suffer disproportionately high rates of tobacco-induced cancers.

That philanthropic division is part of Philip Morris’s advertising and marketing arm, but Stephanie French insists that Philip Morris isn’t funding the arts to sell products. Critics argue, however, that the company is buying legitimacy with that support, a legitimacy Philip Morris needs desperately given the overwhelming evidence linking its most profitable product, cigarettes, with lung cancer, heart disease, and other ailments.

Lawrence White, a lawyer who has written extensively about the tobacco business, calls Philip Morris’s philanthropy “image enhancement” or “innocence by association”.

“People don’t believe the cigarette companies, and so ordinary advertising is not really good enough for the tobacco industry”, White maintains. “They have to find lots of other ways to build their credibility. Every time they give money and have their money accepted by an arts institution or university, a certain amount of that institution’s credibility goes to them”.

Over the years that it has been supporting the arts—the first Philip Morris-funded exhibition was the 1965 “Pop and Op” show at the Museum of Modern Art—the firm has noticed no reluctance among arts organisations to accept its money. In fact, each year the firm has to turn away dozens of organisations such as theatre groups, museums, symphony orchestras and others, that are lining up for funds. In times of recession, those lines inevitably get longer.

According to Lawrence White, any scarcity of funds for the arts works to Philip Morris’s advantage. Heads of arts organisations in the US, White maintains, “have the same sentiments as most other people in this country, which is basically anti-tobacco. And they would rather get funding from somebody else, but they can’t”. For example, when the National Archives of the US approached fifty corporations for a campaign to restore and tour the original Bill of Rights of the US Constitution, only Philip Morris agreed to fund the project. Not coincidentally, an implicit message in the firm’s advertising is that smoking, like freedom of speech or religion, is an activity safeguarded by the spirit of the constitution. Philip Morris’s funding of “The Greek Miracle”, an exhibition of objects on loan from Greece which opened in late 1992 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, another Philip Morris grant recipient, suggested that the freedom to smoke had its roots in Athenian democracy.

We feel a tremendous responsibility. We have been integral to the [arts] field, I think

For now, arts groups that are concerned about the health risks of tobacco seem to be holding their noses silently as they accept the firm’s donations. This response differs noticeably from the shrill call for accountability in society at large that one hears at the many museum exhibitions devoted to Aids. Some of those exhibitions on Aids-related themes have been supported by Philip Morris, which donated more than $2 million to Aids research three years ago in response to pressure from Aids activists.

The firm’s funding of the arts has grown so important, Stephanie French maintained in one interview, that “we feel a tremendous responsibility. We have been integral to the field, I think”. So integral, some argue, that the firm’s funding in certain areas may be more dependable than public monies, which have been slashed almost everywhere in America over the past three years.

Several new anti-tobacco initiatives may test Philip Morris’s commitment. This year, Infact, a Boston group which monitors corporate activities, has called for an international boycott of Philip Morris products. Infact launched its campaign to oppose the firm’s promotion of tobacco to the youth market, according to executive director, Elaine Lamy, who characterises Philip Morris’s arts sponsorship as an effort to buy “good will”. A Philip Morris executive dismissed the Infact boycott as the work of a small activist group.

But in America, at least, good will toward tobacco firms may be in decreasing supply. In hearings before Congress last spring, tobacco executives testified under oath that they did not believe cigarettes to have addictive powers, and then fidgeted in their seats when presented with evidence from their own laboratories which indicated just the opposite.

Another annoying development for Philip Morris and other tobacco firms has been the publication of Thank You for Smoking, a satirical novel by Christopher Buckley, whose hero, a cynical tobacco lobbyist in Washington, DC, endows charitable organisations to distract attention from the health risk of smoking. The book has been a huge success, and the likelihood of its next incarnation as a film may be keeping tobacco executives up at night.          

Update: a 2020 vision

Philip Morris' funding of the arts was fashioned as a marketing strategy aimed at opinion-leaders, no less than the company's cowboy icon ad campaign for Marlboro was aimed at consumers. In the 1980s, the company even adopted the slogan: "It takes art to make a company great," which appeared in hundreds of Philip Morris advertisements in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, TIME, and countless art magazines and other publications touting the company's sponsorship of art exhibitions, dance festivals, classical music and jazz concerts, and opera. By the late-1980s, when cigarette-makers began to come under attack by organised medicine and public health associations—which had sat on the sidelines since the landmark 1964 Surgeon General's Report on smoking and health while anti-smoking activist groups fought for the implementation of clean indoor air laws in public places and on airlines—Philip Morris had honed its image as a pillar of the arts community. The cost was pennies on the dollar compared to conventional cigarette advertising.

We can best see this strategy in the films that the cigarette company produced in 1988 for showing at investor meetings. Consider these quotes: Philip Morris "believes that in a constantly changing marketplace, playing it safe is taking the greatest risk of all." And from Hamish Maxwell, CEO from 1984 to 1991: "The arts have given all of us at PM a broader vision of ourselves as a business enterprise, employer, and corporate citizen. In the deepest sense, the arts enrich the well-being of a vigorous and healthy society."

When Altria moved its headquarters from New York City, America's arts capital, to Richmond, Virginia in 2008, its support of the arts dropped precipitously. Today its most visible cultural sponsorships mainly include the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and The Smithsonian and The Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Because art museums and other cultural institutions are reeling from long-term closures during the pandemic, I anticipate that Altria will be only too pleased to revive and expand its identity as a major supporter of the arts. The timing is also propitious for the company as it tries to burnish its image by promoting "non-combustible alternatives" to cigarettes and supporting federal legislation to raise the legal age for purchases of tobacco products to 21. — Dr Alan Blum, Professor and Gerald Leon Wallace, MD, Endowed Chair in Family Medicine and Director, The University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society