As Philip Morris International shareholders gather today at their annual meeting in New York City, millions of children around the world will see the company's Marlboro cigarette ads with images of someone they aspire to be - a rock star, a thrill-seeking athlete or just someone cool. In more than 50 countries, these ads tell young people, "Don't Be a Maybe. Be Marlboro."
For decades, Philip Morris' Marlboro Man campaigns made Marlboro the most popular cigarette with youth across the world - and helped fuel a global tobacco epidemic that is projected to kill one billion worldwide this century.
Now, the "Be Marlboro" campaign is doing the same thing. It features new images, but the same old themes that tell young people to assert their independence and define themselves by smoking Marlboro cigarettes.
In Germany, where the "Be Marlboro" campaign began, a court has banned the ads, finding that they target children as young as 14. The German court concluded that the advertising "specifically targets risk-taking, rebellious youths."
But these findings haven't stopped U.S.-based Philip Morris International from expanding its ad campaign to more than 50 countries, as revealed by a recent report issued by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other international public health organizations. "Be Marlboro" ads can now be found in many low- and middle-income countries struggling with high smoking rates and related death and disease, including Brazil, China, Indonesia and the Philippines. More recently, the campaign has been launched in Africa, a continent that has been targeted by the tobacco industry as an emerging market and can ill-afford the burdens of rising tobacco use.
In response, public health organizations and government health leaders around the world have mobilized to expose this shameful campaign and called on Philip Morris International to end it immediately. At today's shareholders' meeting, Philip Morris is being presented with an open letter urging an end to the campaign that has been signed by more than 250 civil society organizations and representatives of 25 governments. Youth advocates are also protesting outside the meeting.
Ending the "Be Marlboro" campaign is just one of many steps needed to combat the tobacco epidemic. Countries can prevent similar marketing campaigns by enacting and implementing comprehensive bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship in accordance with the international tobacco control treaty, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. While 178 countries are party to the treaty, many have yet to implement tobacco ad bans, leaving their populations - especially children - vulnerable to sophisticated marketing campaigns like "Be Marlboro."
This treaty also calls on governments to enact other proven tobacco control measures, including higher tobacco taxes, comprehensive smoke-free laws and large, graphic health warnings. There is no question that these measures work to reduce tobacco use and save lives, but political leaders must have the courage to stand up to the tobacco industry and put them in place.
Philip Morris' "Be Marlboro" campaign shows that tobacco companies are as aggressive as ever in promoting their deadly and addictive products around the world. And they continue to do so in ways that appeal to kids - referred to in industry documents as "replacement smokers" for those who die or quit. Globally, as many as 100,000 young people become addicted to tobacco each day.
The question for governments is this: Will they be equally aggressive in taking action to reduce tobacco use and save lives? Literally a billion lives are at stake.