Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry

by Peter Benson

ISBN: 9780691149202

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Politics & Social Sciences/Anthropology

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Most Admired Company

Tobacco has been a visible part of daily life in large parts of the world for hundreds of years. Profound changes in tobacco's prevalence and effects occurred in the twentieth century. The modern commercial cigarette and multinational tobacco corporations proliferated. Smoking is now the single greatest cause of preventable disease and death worldwide. In the last century, there were one hundred million tobacco-related deaths. Although smoking declined and tobacco-control measures took hold in several countries over the past few decades, it is now widely recognized that the unabated global demand for cigarettes will kill 1 billion people in the current century (Proctor 2001). The majority of these deaths will be in developing countries, where the industry continues to infuse smoking with positive social meanings, recruit adolescent smokers, maintain free-market environments for this harmful product, and leverage political influence to limit public health efforts, including implementation of the international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control of the World Health Organization (World Health Organization 2008a).

In the United States, however, the tobacco industry now engages with public health critique and policy through different strategies. Leading the way is Philip Morris USA, which adopted a corporate social responsibility platform in the last decade. Its company website boldly claims, "There is no safe cigarette" (Philip Morris USA 2007b). The website is part of a broader media campaign, including television and print ads aimed at publicizing information about smoking risks. Why would the biggest of Big Tobacco, the world's largest, most powerful cigarette maker, insist to the public that its product is unsafe?

On one level, this insistence is about public image, Philip Morris's makeover into a "responsible corporate citizen" (Brandt 2007: 444). Hence, the website also attests, "Our goal is to be the most responsible ... manufacturer and marketer of consumer products" (Philip Morris USA 2007a). The firm is pursuing image-enhancement strategies to overturn decades of delegitimization and deception that have made the tobacco industry a symbol of corporate wrongdoing (Hirschhorn 2004). But this image-control strategy is also a means of limiting corporate liability and deflecting risk assumption for smoking disease and death onto consumers. Philip Morris has also aligned itself with the leading public health groups (e.g., National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, and American Cancer Society) in the United States in supporting sweeping tobacco-control measures, namely, legislation granting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority to regulate cigarettes and other tobacco products.

In this chapter I explore some of the economic and ethical paradoxes that define this contentious policy change and Philip Morris's newfound commitment to corporate social responsibility. I am interested in what these transformations reflect about contemporary capitalism and the effects of corporate power and strategy on public policy and on populations of consumers and producers. Whereas later chapters explore these phenomena from the standpoint of tobacco farms and migrant farm labor, here I discuss the politics around the FDA legislation, highlighting the dangerous role of a particular corporate oxymoron—the safe cigarette—in Philip Morris's strategic engagement with public health and consumer markets. Although Philip Morris admits on its website that there is "no safe cigarette," the firm is banking on the expectation that FDA regulation will inadvertently sustain the continued promotion of the profitable illusion of a "safer" cigarette. Like many other multinational corporations, the firm paradoxically capitalizes on health problems to bolster corporate image and boost the bottom line, strategically merging economic, ethical, and political interests in an exemplary case of what anthropologists theorize as "biocapitalism" (Sunder Rajan 2006). Analysis of the tobacco industry's evolving biocapitalist trends enhances understanding of social and cultural dynamics on tobacco farms, and, as later chapters will show, tobacco farming provides fruitful ground for theorizing the consequences of the involvement of corporations in regulatory politics.

Motorists driving up and down Interstate 95 pass Philip Morris's headquarters outside Richmond. I passed the behemoth corporate campus on my drive from Boston, where I was a graduate student at the time, to North Carolina to do my fieldwork. Between the highway shoulder and the parking lots there is a tall metal obelisk (it looks like a giant cigarette) wrapped with the logos of the company's most popular cigarette brands: Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Parliament, L&M, and Basic. Many motorists probably roll their eyes, thinking about this company's public relations they've seen in print or on television and the perversity of Philip Morris now fashioning itself as something of a public health advocate.

But the company's image has improved, according to internal and independent polls. In the mid-1990s, Americans had a highly negative view of Philip Morris, giving it an average favorability rating of about 33 percent (only slightly higher than the smoking rate at the time). By 2004, nearly 60 percent of all Americans (more in the young adult age-group) said Philip Morris was acting more responsibly than in the past, and they distinguished it as more responsible than other tobacco companies (McDaniel et al. 2006: 219–20).

In 2008, Fortune magazine ranked Philip Morris the tobacco industry's "most admired" company. The company's overall "admiration" ranking (8.4 out of 10) reflected the magazine's evaluation of such factors as social responsibility, people management, financial soundness, global competitiveness, and product quality. I scanned the lists in each industry and, incredibly, this rating is higher than the score of any other company. Philip Morris is apparently the most admired company in the world. The magazine offers no explanation for why Philip Morris is therefore not included in its published list of the Top 50 most admired companies, alongside such icons as Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, and McDonald's. Nor in the case of Philip Morris does Fortune provide an extended commentary about "Why It's Admired," a blurb included for all nontobacco companies. The company does appear, however, in the alphabetized list of the Top 363 most admired companies, and quite near the top, as one of Philip Morris's strategic responses to critique was to change its name to the Altria Group. My preference is to use the name Philip Morris here so as to not validate the pernicious notion that a new day has dawned in the tobacco industry, which, as I show later in the chapter, was precisely the goal of the name change.


The science of smoking-related disease that arose in the early twentieth century did not identify a problem never before recognized as requiring sociopolitical intervention. In his famous "A Counterblaste to Tobacco," published in 1604, King James I admonished that tobacco is "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lung." Subsequent centuries saw various social movements critique tobacco consumption and seek prohibition. Perhaps the most forceful was the temperance movement in the early twentieth-century United States, which placed tobacco alongside alcohol as the main source of moral ruination in modern society (Brandt 2007: 45–48).

In the last half century, antitobacco politics were radically amplified and distinctively transformed in parts of the world. These changes certainly have to do with the biosciences' mounting interrogation of smoking and the new alliances between science, government, and civil society, as well as the sheer magnitude of the public health catastrophe that was increasingly being linked to tobacco consumption. A watershed here was the landmark 1964 U.S. Surgeon General's Report, which helped publicly solidify the scientific and medical consensus about smoking and health. The tobacco industry responded with various strategies, including redoubling marketing campaigns to legitimize the smoking habit and secretly funding pseudoscience to foment public debate and doubts about even the most basic facts of tobacco's toxicity (Benson and Kirsch 2010; Kohrman and Benson 2011; Brandt 2007).

It is tempting to narrate the history of tobacco's changing social meaning as a shift from a "sacred" period to a "profane" period (Kohrman and Benson 2011). Tobacco was once glamorized on the silver screen and recommended to patients by doctors in advertisements and office visits. Then all of a sudden things changed. The smoking rate declined. The industry was vilified, and the antitobacco movement linked medical and public health research to policy development.

This is a too simple story. Things did not change with one fell swoop. Smoking underwent a process of "problematization" (Foucault 1985, 1997a; Deacon 2000). In historical perspective, there are many ways that society might respond to health problems related to smoking. The concept of problematization encourages a study of the concrete historical processes through which this particular phenomenon came to be regarded in a very public way as a problem. Analysis of this ethical and epistemological classification, what it means for tobacco to be a problem today, entails apprehending, among many other things, the forms of political calculation and intervention that have evolved in relation to tobacco; the development of official government approaches, as well as criticism and advocacy work; and the responses and engagements of the tobacco industry and its political supporters. More than the increase in scientific evidence linking smoking to disease, or the simple fact that government regulation of tobacco has increased in the last half century, Foucault's concept of problematization refers especially to the organization of new and different kinds of institutional and societal arrangements for defining and acting upon a problem (Foucault 1985: 115).

The anthropologist Aihwa Ong (2003: 6) uses the phrase "problem-space" to refer to a sociopolitical context that is sculpted over time as a given phenomenon becomes the object of ethical deliberation, political calculation, and technoscientific endeavors. A problem like tobacco comes to occupy the philosophical and intellectual space of public and private thinking about what is right or wrong, proper or improper, and normal or abnormal in a society, and also the physical space of the institutional environments and intervention strategies that link up with the industries and populations that are affected. The concept of problematization encourages a view of the tobacco industry as being actively involved in configuring the philosophy and practice of public health and the government of health behavior, while Ong's concept of problem-space reiterates the need to analyze the historical construction of problems and the ethics and politics that define responses to them.

Instead of setting out with the belief that public health and industry are opposed, I examine how corporations respond to critique or increased public awareness about the environmental and health problems that are related to their business. Far from being opposed to governments, corporations are often actively involved in shaping regulation as both an intellectual space linked to normalized ethical and cultural values and an institutional space defined by dominant approaches and concerns. This focus is amenable to the way Foucault conceived of power as a field of strategies and relationships (Lazzarato 2002). This perspective is broadly appropriate to the study of other health problems because claims to corporate social responsibility are evident across many industries, including among the food and beverage companies that market products that significantly contribute to chronic disease conditions. My goal is to open up the crucial role of corporations in modern public health to more rigorous analysis and to develop critical reflection about the inadequacies of contemporary public health approaches that do not attend to the harm caused by industry and the role of corporations in the social management of harm. To avoid an uncomplicated account of antitobacco sentiment arising overnight and in defiance of the tobacco industry, I document how the modern tobacco problem emerged and continues to evolve in the middle of interests that are superficially understood as being opposed. Tobacco companies never simply responded to a problem that existed apart from their involvement in shaping what that problem looked like exactly. The tobacco problem was constructed out of the dialectical relationship between the intensified criticism of the industry in the last half century and the responses and justifications provided by the industry.

In contrast to the temperance movement's somewhat religious focus, the regulatory approaches of the postwar decades were more secular. The emphasis on sin and moral ruination shifted to a concern with health. Not health in the vague sense referenced by early monarchs and the temperance movement, who were of course aware of smoking-related ailments, but rather a scientific understanding of health in terms of epidemiological risk factors (Brandt 1990). Regarding smoking as gravely threatening to the nation would not have been an implausible response to the scientific evidence about smoking and health in the 1950s. But this is not what happened. Tobacco's legitimacy and legality were not questioned, even though tobacco killed more Americans in the last century than all of the country's military operations combined. The federal government was not going to take bold action with tobacco products ubiquitous throughout the culture. The surgeon general's report did not lead to a call for prohibition or even the wholesale restructuring and regulation of the tobacco industry. The report instead led to new government interventions designed to enhance public awareness of risk and improve individual decisions, mainly by mandating warning labels on cigarette packs and beginning to regulate tobacco advertisements. The project of eliminating tobacco from society, an approach characteristic of the prohibition movement, was replaced by the biopolitical goal of enhancing "probabilities of life," to use Foucault's phrase (1984: 264). The overarching aim was to link accumulated knowledge about smoking risk to the development of techniques for managing risk at the population level and promoting behavior management and modification at the individual level. Hence, the modern antitobacco movement has been and remains premised on the idea that more and more scientific information about smoking risk is essential to improving the public health. This epistemological and organizational framework of tobacco control determined in large measure how other chronic disease problems like obesity would be conceptualized and managed. Prevention has been part of the official public health response to the epidemiological transition, characterized by an increased chronic disease burden and disease problems linked to consumption and lifestyle issues. But the dominant approach has favored health promotion over prevention, making consumers the locus of intervention (as in the case of warning labels) and upholding distinctive American beliefs in individual autonomy and responsibility and the cultural framing of freedom in terms of the marketplace (Brandt 2007: 442–45).

A public health agenda that focused on the management of risk and harm as individual medical problems rather than essential industrial problems and the pursuit of risk reduction through technological development were two means of reconciling health values and market values as the tobacco problem took shape. In the 1960s and 1970s, the tobacco industry and the federal government worked collaboratively to develop potentially reduced-risk tobacco products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture funded studies in search of less toxic tobacco leaf varieties. The American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association pushed for the removal of "high-tar" cigarettes from the market, believing that "low-tar" products would reduce disease prevalence. Leading public health officials formed the Less Hazardous Cigarette Working Group (later renamed the Tobacco Working Group to appease the industry) and contracted with scientific laboratories and industry scientists to develop less risky products. Meanwhile, the federal Public Health Service cautioned that the promotion of supposedly reduced-risk products "might lull the consumer into believing that he could smoke this kind of cigarette without any accompanying risk" (Fairchild and Colgrove 2004: 193–95; original italics). The relationship of government and industry is not so starkly posed if one considers the institutional complicities that influenced how tobacco was reckoned a problem and that drove responses that were frankly quite nonchalant given the public health impact.


Excerpted from "Tobacco Capitalism: Growers, Migrant Workers, and the Changing Face of a Global Industry" by Peter Benson. Copyright © 0 by Peter Benson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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