IQOS electronic cigarette
An iQOS electronic cigarette is pictured in Neuchatel, at the research and development campus of cigarette and tobacco manufacturing company Philip Morris International. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Image

Philip Morris ‘smoke-free’ and online campaigns are propaganda, lawsuit alleges

The tobacco giant is accused of violating French public health law in its marketing strategy for IQOS heated tobacco products. 

October 5, 2023

Tobacco giant Philip Morris wielded a vast pro-tobacco “propaganda” campaign that violated public health law, a new French lawsuit alleges.

Despite a ban on tobacco advertising in France, Philip Morris’s French subsidiary used its ‘smoke-free world’ slogan to mask its online promotion of its cigarette and heated tobacco business, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in Paris last month by the Comité National contre le Tabagisme, a French anti-smoking advocacy organization. 

Philip Morris distorted government health warnings, established misleading websites and touted products such as heated tobacco as potentially “less harmful” alternatives to smoking, despite a lack of scientific evidence on the long term health impact, the lawsuit claims. 

Hugo Lévy, the lawyer representing CNCT, said Philip Morris’ marketing strategy for its IQOS heated tobacco products harkens to an earlier era when tobacco companies engaged in large-scale propaganda campaigns to sell cigarettes.

“The lie behind ‘smoke free alternatives’ is as coarse as the lie behind R.J. Reynolds’s ‘More Doctors Smoke Camels’ campaign,” Levy said. “We are beyond illegal advertising: it is propaganda.”

As part of the lawsuit, CNCT also named the president of Philip Morris France, Jeanne Polles, as an “accomplice” by contributing to and appearing in news articles and videos as part of the company’s strategy.

“Their allegations are fundamentally groundless and are currently pending before courts in France,” a spokesperson for Philip Morris International said in a written response to The Examination. “PM France acts in compliance with local laws and regulations.”

“We acknowledge that quitting tobacco and nicotine altogether is always the best choice for adults who smoke, that products like IQOS are not risk free and are addictive, and that longer term studies are needed which we are committed to doing,” the spokesperson said. “However, there’s already undeniable evidence that IQOS is fundamentally different to cigarettes and represents a better choice for adults than continuing to smoke.”

The stakes in the case are more reputational than financial. The lawsuit seeks to have a judge essentially repudiate Philip Morris’ entire approach to marketing its products via its ‘smoke free world’ campaign. The company, CNCT alleges, is using that campaign to disguise its true intention: to market heated tobacco and other smokeless products, while still dominating the French cigarette market. 

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In a previous case, CNCT accused Philip Morris of illicit advertising, and won damages — a judgment the tobacco company is appealing.

Philip Morris’ IQOS uses an electronic device to heat a tobacco stick to a lower temperature than a traditional cigarette. It is one of a number of so-called smokeless products marketed by Philip Morris and other tobacco companies as a replacement for cigarettes. On its website, Philip Morris describes IQOS as a “better choice” than cigarettes. 

The science behind smokeless products is still emerging. Some scientists believe the emissions IQOS creates is, in fact, smoke — and that it and other products, such as e-cigarettes, pose potential long-term health risks. 

“The rhetoric aims to make people believe that there is a lesser danger of use even though there is no conclusive scientific certainty on this point. This rhetoric’s only aim is the illicit promotion of the products sold by Philip Morris France,” CNCT wrote.

Anti-tobacco groups have long claimed that the tobacco companies are simply trying to get people hooked on another nicotine product, and that if they were serious about creating a smoke-free world they’d stop selling cigarettes altogether. 

Philip Morris France, which is estimated to sell almost half of the country’s cigarettes under brands that included Marlboro and Chesterfield, is a subsidiary of the global tobacco giant Philip Morris International. Smoking is responsible for an estimated 75,000 early deaths in France each year, according to an estimate cited in the lawsuit.

Online campaign tactics

In a 34-page complaint seen by The Examination, CNCT alleges that Philip Morris France deployed “commercial propaganda,” distorting information about heated tobacco provided by the French government and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Philip Morris France is also accused of breaching transparency rules when it encouraged consumers to respond to a European Commission consultation on smoking regulations. “Defend your IQOS,” Philip Morris France wrote to French users of the company’s heated tobacco device.

CNCT also alleges that Philip Morris France created a website called “Popular Misconceptions about Cigarettes.” While fine print said that the website did not intend to promote the sale of Philip Morris products, the website directed visitors to the company’s advertising and related websites, according to the lawsuit.

The company also joined a campaign, which included advertisements in the Paris metro, to warn consumers of counterfeit cigarettes, citing health risks. CNCT argues that, in reality, the purpose was to encourage consumers to buy original products, including those made by Philip Morris France. The company’s Twitter account was also a source of indirect tobacco advertising, which is prohibited under French law, CNCT alleged.

In French law, there is no system of punitive damages but CNCT has asked the court to force Philip Morris France to pay the advocacy organization, which is recognised as a public utility, more than $450,000 if found guilty given its role and costs incurred fighting smoking. 

“This is a large-scale strategy involving significant investment,” CNCT wrote of the activities of Philip Morris France. “In reality, the only goal is self-serving communications to hide the ongoing trade in conventional cigarettes and heated tobacco products whose purported safety is a fiction.”

Will Fitzgibbon contributed reporting. This story has been updated with comment from Philip Morris International.

The Examination

Matthew Chapman

Matthew Chapman is a senior reporter at The Examination, where he covers the tobacco industry.