STEP right up, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Click on to www.philipmorris.com and see death-defying feats of corporate communications! See the Marlboro man eat fire! See Virginia Slims dangle from the Trapeze of Truth! See Benson stop Hedging! Witness what no man, woman, or child has ever seen under the big top of Big Tobacco! See our Web page, where we tell you how you are killing yourselves with our cigarettes!
Philip Morris is playing us all for Bozos. The cigarette-maker has unveiled a new Web page that, after decades of denials and lies, admits that the company's product might cause a few problems for consumers, like, um, cancer.
Given the denials and lies, David Kessler, the former head of the Food and Drug Administration who bludgeoned the tobacco industry at every chance, called Philip Morris' move a "profound change."
Mr. Kessler is right to the degree that these "confessions" may make cigarettes easier to regulate. But how profound a change this is for the rest of us depends on how one views the motives of the ring . . . er, smoke-ring master.
Aside from curious reporters and anti-smoking advocates who will get chuckles from this Web site, it is difficult to imagine who else would actually use it. It is hard to see a chain smoker buying a discount pack at the gas station and rushing to the Internet to read: "There is an overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other serious diseases in smokers."
It is just as unlikely that underage smokers are going to bum a Marlboro off a buddy at the corner store, then go home to stare at a computer screen that says, "Click here for information about Philip Morris USA's Youth Smoking Program department."
Most health-conscious people do not need Philip Morris to hot link them to the surgeon general's report, the World Health Organization or the American Cancer Society.
As for quitting, it is nearly impossible to picture addicts throwing themselves on the mercy of Philip Morris to read such patronizing hypocrisy as: "For those smokers who want to quit but are having difficulty, there are many programs and products marketed as being helpful, including group classes, hypnosis, nicotine replacement therapies and smoking deterrents. . . .
"We encourage you to investigate the wide selection of options that are available and see if there are any that seem right for you."
That is like walking up to your local gun shop and asking for the phone number to Handgun Control.
There is only one reason Philip Morris has the Web site. It is not to inform smokers but to insulate the company from further attack from dying smokers.
Big Tobacco negotiated a $246 billion settlement with the states that sued to recover the cost of treating ill or dying smokers. But it still faces suits from the federal government, individuals and health insurers who say that cigarette-makers knew for decades how deadly their products are.
Philip Morris evidently hopes that if it comes just clean enough -- it does not come out and say smoking causes cancer, it only acknowledges the "overwhelming evidence" that it does -- it will convince juries that smokers were fully informed of the dangers of cigarettes and thus gave themselves cancer.
Philip Morris is gambling that it can seduce juries to forget that today's plaintiffs began smoking in yesterday's era of denial and lies. Fearing just that, attorneys for 500,000 Florida smokers have already asked a judge to shut down the Web page.
In July, a Miami jury found Big Tobacco liable for smoking-related illness. The big-money, damage phase of the trial begins this week. Shutting down Web sites is highly impractical on the basis of free speech. But the episode makes it clear why Philip Morris has the Web site.
Philip Morris knows that few people will use it as a hot link to the American Cancer Society. What they are doing is finding a new way to avoid having any responsibility for cancer.
The old way was denials and lies, which treated smokers like bozos. The new way is coming clean and making smokers look like clowns in the courts. Either way, it is a death-defying feat of corporate communications.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.