Going further than it's publicly gone before, Philip Morris now admits there is "overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking" causes diseases, CBS News Correspondent Jim Stewart reports. Significantly, it stopped short of saying it agreed with the evidence.
This comes as the company has also launched a $100 million advertising campaign in an effort to redefine itself.
On the company's Web site, one section states, "There is no 'safe' cigarette" and that "cigarette smoking is addictive, as that term is most commonly used today."
The site even offers advice on quitting smoking and on interpreting tobacco and nicotine ratings. It also lists the ingredients in each brand, though not the proportions.
President Clinton, who welcomed the admission but said it comes too late, said, "It certainly makes clear, as I've said for years, that the tobacco companies should answer for their actions in court."
In one of the new advertisements, launched Wednesday, a thankful food bank recipient is tagged with the narration, "Working to make a difference...the people of Philip Morris."
Critics immediately charged that the new ads and admissions were only part of a company ploy to play down its role as a cigarette maker while trying to convince juries in the lawsuits against them that the company's now come clean about the dangers of smoking.
According to Kathryn Kahler Vose, of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, "Those comments were written by lawyers working with public relations professionals. They're very well crafted. Some might even say they're very weasel-y."
And industry observers say Philip Morris may also be trying to dilute the impact of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood movie starring Al Pacino as a whistle-blowing tobacco industry executive.
The ad campaign comes as tobacco companies remain under attack from the federal government, health insurers and public health advocates who want the industry to help pay the costs of treating sick smokers and to discourage children from starting to smoke.
The industry tried to put many of these claims to rest when it reached settlements under which it will pay $246 billion to the 50 states over 25 years and accepted restrictions on marketing cigarettes in exchange for the withdrawal of lawsuits.
But the federal government sued the industry last month to recover some of the $20 billion a year it spends on health programs for diseases related to smoking. The industry also faces dozens of suits by health insurers and individuals who claim it concealed for decades the full extent of what it knew of the dangers of smoking.
Philip Morris can't win in the movies and its record in the courtroom hasn't been ll that great, admitted one industry executive. "We're letting others define who we are," he said. Striving for a new image may be the rationale behind the advertising campaign.
In addition to its tobacco operations, Philip Morris owns Miller Brewing Co. and Kraft Foods, which makes Jell-O, Maxwell House coffee and Oscar Mayer meats.