Philip Morris (PM) has long been a past master at funding front groups and organizing scientists to deny the obvious. Now it is apparent that someone at PM tried puffing the entry in Wikipedia on the Marlboro cigarette.
Using WikiScanner, a program that allows users to track anonymous edits on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, I searched to see what edits originated from a computer mapping to the New York office of PM. Tucked in amongst lots of innocuous edits was one dating back to January 2005, when someone using a PM computer deleted the statement that Marlboro "emerged as the number one youth-initiation brand."
The attempt by an anonymous editor at PM at puffing Wikipedia worked until the original statement was reinstated on August 26, 2007. While the statement was unreferenced, it was certainly accurate for the U.S.
In 1975 Myron E. Johnston, a marketing researcher for PM, penned an internal memo in which he commented on the importance of youth smoking to the company. "... My own data, which includes younger teenagers, shows even higher market penetration [of Marlboro] among 15-17 year-olds. The teenage years are the most important because those are the years during which most smokers begin to smoke, the years in which initial brand selections are made and the period in the life-cycle in which conformity to peer-group norms is greatest," he wrote.
Johnston pointed out that the aging of the population would have a substantial impact on the company's future fortunes. "Marlboro's phenomenal growth rate in the past has been attributable in large part to our high market penetration among our younger smokers...I pointed out that the number of 15-19 year olds is now increasing more slowly and will peak in 1976, and then begin to decline...," he cautioned.
A few years later, a R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company document confirmed Marlboro's dominance in the youth market. "It is worth noting that the five key brands represent over 80% of the market for 14-17 year old smokers. Marlboro alone accounts for 50%," the 1980 memo stated. Almost two decades later, the story remained virtually identical. In its Youth Tobacco Surveillance - United States, 1998--1999 report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control states that "young people have strong cigarette brand preferences. Almost half of current smokers in both middle school and high school report that they usually smoke Marlboro cigarettes." The rest of the youth market was split between a number of other brands.
The evidence in support of the original statement in the Wikipedia article that Marlboro "emerged as the number one youth-initiation brand" is overwhelming, at least for the U.S. We will never know who in PM deleted that statement. But what is almost certain is that the statement was deleted because it was both true and embarrassing.
Thank you to Anne Landman, the editor of TobaccoWiki, for her assistance in researching the tobacco industry documents on the topic. If you'd like to help document the history and current activities of the tobacco industry though the the tobacco-specific section of the SourceWatch website, we'd be glad to help get you started. If you have never edited a SourceWatch article, you can register here, and learn more about adding information to the site here and here.