Globe should honor its 1999 policy on tobacco ads

Stop running Philip Morris sponsored content

IN 1999, the Boston Globe announced it would no longer publish advertisements that promote tobacco products. At the time, tobacco company messages were everywhere. The Globe’s principled stand helped reduce the tobacco companies’ power and limit their impact.

In the years since, Massachusetts has made great strides against tobacco. But the tobacco industry is very active in Massachusetts, working behind the scenes to undermine public health laws and spread misinformation. In many ways, the industry is more dangerous now than ever before.

And now they have a new partner in spreading misinformation: the Boston Globe.

Recently the Globe began running “sponsored content” paid for by Philip Morris International, in a clear violation of its own policy. The pieces look like newspaper articles but are written by and for the tobacco company. In a previous piece, a Philip Morris executive is unchallenged when she says that her company is using “science” to solve the problem of cigarette smoking. There is no counterpoint showing that her company caused and continues to promote the very problem she says the firm is solving. There is no information challenging the effectiveness or safety of the new product she promotes.

In the newest Globe section sponsored by Philip Morris, the company blames “misinformation” for preventing it from selling its products without restriction. But the “falsehoods” that the ads claim have “insidiously woven their way into the public conscience” do not come from the public health or medical world; they come from the tobacco companies themselves. Far from being forthcoming about their products, they are secretive about the mechanisms and chemicals involved and are silent about how much more addictive these new products may truly be.

Phillip Morris bemoans misinformation as “an obstacle like few others,” yet tobacco companies have a long history of straying from the truth. They marketed “light” and “filtered” products as healthy options. They added menthol and claimed it was less harsh and harmful than unflavored cigarettes. These claims were all false, but they caused people to stay addicted instead of quitting, causing untold deaths. This is an industry that lied to the public for decades about the very real health impacts of smoking. Why would we believe them now?

Philip Morris tries to imply that its new noncombustible tobacco products are part of a plan for improved public health. However, true harm reduction aimed at helping those adults who have been unable to stop smoking does not require the introduction of new, unregulated consumer products such as vapes or heated cigarettes sold at the corner store. Instead, true harm reduction involves helping smokers reduce their risk of death and disease through medically-tested nicotine substitutes that are proven to be safe—and that do not target new tobacco users.

Public health advocates have worked tirelessly to reduce the impact of the tobacco industry in Black, Latinx, and LGBTQ communities; prevent young people from starting to use tobacco products; and help smokers quit. As a result, in Massachusetts, youth smoking rates have plummeted from 35.7 percent in 1995 to 5 percent in 2019 and adult smoking rates fell to a new low of 13.4 percent in 2018.

Massachusetts has come this far despite the best efforts of the tobacco industry, which has fought us every step of the way. Tobacco company lobbyists fought against the smoke-free workplace law that ended smoking and vaping in restaurants, bars, and other places of work. They sent lawyers to local meetings to try to stop regulations that would make tobacco less accessible and attractive to young people. They tried to get legislation passed to take away the authority of local health boards to pass tobacco regulations in their own communities.

At every turn, the tobacco companies like Philip Morris have acted against the best interests of public health and social justice. And they have done so while promoting themselves as good corporate citizens.

Meet the Author

Dennis Dimitri

Chair/Professor of family medicine and community health, Tobacco Free Mass/UMass Medical School
Meet the Author

Ellana Stinson

President, New England Medical Association
We reached out to the Globe’s chief executive officer Linda Pizzuti Henry several weeks ago explaining the issue, but have received no response. More recently, many of our coalition members have emailed her but she has not replied. Our hope is that she is working on pulling the ads and ending the relationship with Philip Morris International.

We urgently call for the Boston Globe to stop taking money from Big Tobacco, stop running Philip Morris’ content, and renew its longstanding policy against running tobacco industry advertisements.

Dr. Dennis M. Dimitri is chair of Tobacco Free Mass and professor of family medicine and community health at UMass Medical School. He is also a past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society and the Massachusetts Academy of Family Physicians. Dr. Ellana Stinson is the vice chair of Tobacco Free Mass and president of the New England Medical Association.