RICHMOND, Virginia (AP) — The head of cigarette maker Philip Morris International Inc. told a cancer nurse Wednesday that while cigarettes are harmful and addictive, it is not that hard to quit smoking.
CEO Louis C. Camilleri 's statement was in response to comments at its annual shareholder meeting in New York, in which the seller of Marlboro and other brands overseas spent most of the gathering sparring with members of anti-tobacco and other corporate accountability groups targeting its marketing and regulatory dealings.
A woman identifying herself as a nurse named Elizabeth from the University of California-San Francisco cited statistics that tobacco use kills more than 400,000 Americans and 5 million people worldwide each year.
She also said a patient told her last week that of all the addictions he's beaten — crack, cocaine, meth — cigarettes have been the most difficult.
In response, the often unapologetic Camilleri said: "We take our responsibility very seriously, and I don't think we get enough recognition for the efforts we make to ensure that there is effective worldwide regulation of a product that is harmful and that is addictive. Nevertheless, whilst it is addictive, it is not that hard to quit. ... There are more previous smokers in America today than current smokers."
Camilleri was characterized as a "longtime smoker himself," who had quit only once for three months when he had a cold, in a April 2009 BusinessWeek article. The company did not immediately comment on Camilleri's remarks, or whether he still smokes.
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said the comments represent the "most irresponsible form of corporate double-speak."
"Study after study has documented the powerful addiction to cigarettes is one of the most difficult to overcome of any drug anywhere in the world," Myers said. "It is stunning in the face of overwhelming science for the leader of the world's largest private tobacco company to deny how difficult and addictive cigarettes are."
During the meeting, Camilleri also discussed the key challenges facing the tobacco industry like tax hikes and regulation, including product display bans, bans on the use of certain ingredients, and plain packaging. He said some of these restrictions impede competition, add costs for retailers, encourage adult smokers to make choices purely on price, and foster black markets.
He also said Philip Morris International has successfully managed regulation in the past such as public smoking restrictions, marketing constraints and graphic warning labels.
"In fact, we have largely supported these measures within the framework of comprehensive, effective, and uniform tobacco regulation," Camilleri said. "We do not, however, support regulation that prevents adults from buying and using tobacco products, or that imposes unnecessary impediments to the operation of the legitimate tobacco market."
Last year, Philip Morris International saw its profit grow 14.5 percent as its net revenue excluding excise taxes rise 8.7 percent. The company has raised prices and focused on emerging markets for growth as tax hikes, smoking bans, health concerns and social stigma have cut cigarette demand worldwide.
Philip Morris International, with offices in New York and Lausanne, Switzerland, was spun off from Richmond, Virginia-based Altria in March 2008. Altria still sells Marlboro and other Philip Morris brands in the U.S.
Philip Morris International is the world's largest non-governmental cigarette seller, smaller only than state-controlled China National Tobacco Corp.