Philip Morris' pas de deux

October 11, 1994|By Anna Quindlen

New York -- WELL, I haven't seen so much tippy-toeing around since the last time I went to the ballet. When members of the arts community were asked this week about one of their biggest benefactors, Philip Morris, and its requests that they lobby the New York City Council on the company's behalf, the pas de deux of self-justification was so painstakingly choreographed that it constituted a performance all by itself.

An official of one group put it thus: "We were not lobbying on behalf of Philip Morris; we were lobbying on behalf of ourselves and the money pool."

The money pool of tobacco profits from those who bring you Marlboro, America's best-selling social carcinogen, as well as Impressionist paintings and modern dance, is enormous and essential to arts underwriting.

So that man spoke under cover of anonymity, and he was not alone; not a single official or board member of any cultural organization supported by the tobacco giant would speak for attribution to New York Times reporter Paul Goldberger about the lobbying efforts.

Outside of the accounts of White House shake-ups, few news stories run with so many anonymous quotes. Either culture vultures were terribly afraid of offending the company, or they thought they were doing something shady. Or perhaps both.

For years now, Philip Morris has carefully gilded its emphysema image by giving millions of dollars to charity. The company's most conspicuous efforts in New York City were on behalf of the arts. It became nearly impossible to attend the opening of an exhibition without finding the quasi-baronial crest of the company on the program.

Unlike the more mundane transactions of paid advertising, the philanthropic approach provided an aura of simple goodness. (Although before those cards and letters start coming, I, too, readers, wish this paper and others that editorialize powerfully against smoking did not run tobacco ads.)

Philip Morris pursued philanthropy with the canniness that has made its marketing of the addictive legal drug nicotine so successful. It developed a large, knowledgeable and likable cultural affairs staff removed from the source of its largesse.

And the largesse was stupefying. It put you in mind of a private school that might turn up its nose at a $100 check from a father who was said to be involved in shady dealings, but couldn't afford to say no to a new dorm.

This open-handedness and the depth of their need may have made it possible for arts organizations not to think too hard about where the money was coming from.

But when the City Council recently began to consider a bill banning smoking in most public places and arts organizations were urged by the tobacco company to let legislators know how much it had done for culture, payback made passivity less possible.

The surprise was that so many were blindsided by the fact that the quid came with a pro quo. Several years ago the executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless decided to stop taking tobacco money after a public relations firm representing the industry asked her to write to the City Council, then considering a bill to mandate anti-smoking ads.

The pitch was not to attack the bill but to buoy the reputation of its foes. Which is, of course, what Philip Morris has had in mind all the time.

The tobacco companies are extraordinarily powerful institutions.

Yet they are being steamrollered by health organizations and anti-smoking citizens' groups that have succeeded in revolutionizing governmental attitudes toward smoking.

The way in which opponents of the tobacco industry have done this is simple: They are right on the merits.

With nearly half a million people dying from smoking every year, almost everyone knows someone who was suffocated by the product Philip Morris uses to subsidize dance and theater.

Perhaps there is now sufficient sentiment to form a philanthropic consortium of those who will give to worthy organizations that won't take tobacco money.

"Thank God for sinners," the spokeswoman for a dance company said. "They're the only people to support the arts." Like the reaction of so many to the relationship between culture and cigarettes, the comment had at its core the argument that the end justifies the means. Only it doesn't.

Anna Quindlen is a syndicated columnist.

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