I have fielded countless questions over the past two years about why I decided to leave a career I enjoyed and join Philip Morris International (PMI) as their head of global communications.
I understand that people were surprised by my decision to join a tobacco company; I was surprised by my decision. I am not a smoker, nor am I an advocate of smoking. Quite the opposite. I am the daughter of a longtime smoker (cigars, pipe, an occasional cigarette) who died of lung cancer and am myself a survivor of two atypical meningiomas (brain tumors). While my tumors were not tobacco-related, they were sufficiently frightening to move my health and well-being from an occasional thought to a primary focus. And they redoubled my commitment to promoting “better for you” products to others in my work as a PR professional and marketer.
Consequently, had PMI approached me in 2018 to help them sell cigarettes, I would have said a quick, emphatic (and likely not overly polite) “NO.” That is not why they came to me. PMI asked me to help them achieve their vision of a smoke-free world. That means a world without cigarettes. Yes, you read that right: They are a tobacco company looking to rid the world of the product for which they are best known.
An End to Cigarettes
Many years ago, the tobacco industry was challenged to create a less harmful alternative to cigarettes. PMI took up that challenge. Over the past decade, the company has invested billions of dollars and the work of hundreds of scientists and engineers into creating smoke-free products that would reduce the risks compared to smoking. The key, scientists discovered, was to eliminate the combustion, the burning—which is responsible for the vast majority of toxins produced by cigarettes.
The company’s early efforts went nowhere. Smokers simply didn’t want them—and so they kept right on smoking. It wasn’t until 2014 that PMI came up with a heated tobacco product that proved an acceptable substitute for many adult smokers. Many were willing to switch to this product, and, as of the end of March 2020, an estimated 10.6 million adults have done just that. That’s 10.6 million men and women who have stopped smoking in favor of a scientifically substantiated better alternative to cigarettes.
My job as PMI’s head of global communications is to ensure that many more millions of men and women who would otherwise continue smoking make that choice—and, vitally, are given the option to make that choice.
Our message is simple:
If you don’t smoke, don’t start.
If you smoke, quit.
If you don’t quit, change.
PMI’s goal is to transition away from cigarettes to smoke-free alternatives, ultimately ceasing the production of cigarettes entirely. The speed at which it can do that depends on several factors, including the support of regulators and policymakers. Adults who smoke need access to these smoke-free products and to accurate information about them. And regulation should be risk proportionate so that those adults who would otherwise continue to smoke have an incentive to switch. Once these factors are in place, PMI believes some markets can see an end to cigarette sales within 10 to 15 years.
My Third Act
I have long been an advocate for change and am proud of the work I have done to create a better world—from relief efforts following Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and supporting wounded veterans to being part of the team that created #GivingTuesday. My hope—and, increasingly, my conviction—is that the work I do at PMI will have a far more positive impact than anything else I have done to date. I have a chance to help rid the world of cigarettes. How could I not leap at that?
Still, I was understandably hesitant to join forces with a tobacco company—even one with the aim of unsmoking the world—not least because of my concerns regarding their culture. Was I really going to fit in with a bunch of “suits”? As it turns out, my stereotypes of Big Tobacco were wholly unfounded—at least within PMI. I find myself surrounded by some of the brightest, loveliest, funniest, and most generous people with whom I have ever had the pleasure to work. I love my new(ish) job and am thrilled to be working with people as committed as I am to seeing an end to cigarettes.
One thing this job has required is tough skin. I’ve been called a hypocrite and sell-out, a shill for Big Tobacco. Virtually every day, I field some attack or another—typically from one of a small group of people who have zero interest in what PMI is doing in the area of tobacco harm reduction. They see us as the enemy and refuse to engage on science and facts rather than disinformation and outdated prejudices. It’s exhausting, to be honest, but I know that truth eventually will drown out falsehoods and that a genuine purpose is more potent than any propaganda.
My professional life over these past two years has been all about communicating in the “age of rage”—finding ways to get people to open their minds and eyes to truths that fly in the face of all they wish to be true. I will admit that I have given up on a handful of people who are only in it to draw blood, never to genuinely engage. And it is engagement that I am after—genuine conversation, fact-based dialogues, and the sharing of ideas and information.
If you had told me 20—or even 10—years ago that my career would culminate with me being head of global communications for a tobacco company, I would not have believed you. And yet here I am. And I have never been prouder of the work I am doing.