BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 29, 1999 ISSUE
COVER STORY

Philip Morris: Inside America's Most Reviled Company


There is going to be a Day of Judgment. If there isn't a day up there, it's when you're lying on your deathbed. And you're going to say to yourself: 'Well, what did I achieve in my life?' It's not how much money you've made, or how big a house you've got, or how many cars. It's what you did for your fellow man. It's 'What did I do to make the world better?' That's what it's going to come down to.''

The man uttering these words seems as sincere as a pastor in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Yet his many critics think of him and his corporation as a villain, a beast, even the devil incarnate. The speaker, remarkably, is Geoffrey C. Bible, chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris Cos. He oversees the world's largest tobacco company, arguably the most reviled corporation in America.

In the U.S., where more than 400,000 people die annually from smoking-related diseases, it could be said that Bible's company, with its 50% market share, is to blame for the often agonizing deaths of some 200,000 smokers a year. So how can Bible, of all people, speak so passionately about an individual's obligation to society?

That, of course, is a dilemma that each of Philip Morris' 144,000 employees must wrestle with. Rarely has an industry or a corporation been so deeply vilified and so thoroughly discredited as Big Tobacco and its biggest player, Philip Morris (MO). Few employees have escaped the loathing heaped on their company. Almost all have faced The Question, the inevitable inquiry laced with accusation that sooner or later always gets asked--at the PTA, a dinner party, or Little League: ''How can you work for a company that kills people?''

It's not a question that is easily answered. Execs at Philip Morris tend to frame their response in self-righteous, almost combative terms. Cigarettes, they will tell you, are lawful products that any adult should have the right to buy. It is a matter of freedom of choice, no different from the right to own a handgun, drink a martini, or eat a Big Mac. But probe a little deeper and it becomes clear that their attitudes are far more complex and that many at Philip Morris make a difficult peace with the company's mission.

Indeed, Philip Morris is a company fraught with contradictions. In the past year, it has spent $100 million to persuade kids not to smoke. By the end of this year, it will have paid nearly $8.5 billion to reimburse states for the cost of treating smoking-related illnesses. But visit the company's New York corporate headquarters, where 8 of the top 12 executives are smokers, and it's clear that tobacco infuses the entire culture. Philip Morris received the only exemption to New York City's sweeping ban on smoking in the workplace. Ashtrays are built into the granite walls outside the elevator bank at every floor and also hang above the urinals in the men's rooms. Conference tables hold wooden boxes filled with Philip Morris cigarettes, and the scent of tobacco lingers in the broad, carpeted halls.

The contradictions extend to the company's uneasy relations with the outside world. Although widely despised, Philip Morris is one of the world's most generous corporations, annually contributing $60 million in cash and $15 million in food to fight hunger and domestic violence and to support the arts. Its employees give up to $5 million a year to charities.

None of that, of course, has silenced the company's critics, who insist the harm done by the company's products taints all else. ''At every opportunity, this industry has fought legislation that might have saved lives,'' asserts Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. ''Their executives have lied about what they knew. And to a degree unmatched by any other industry that makes products that can harm people, they have gone after children.''

WALLED OFF. For years, the sound and fury of the debate over the industry's products and tactics all but silenced the company and its executives. Bible became a corporate recluse as his company retreated into itself, creating a self-defensive culture to wall itself off from attack. The tobacco giant shut down virtually all outside communication. It was as if Philip Morris, one of the world's largest and most powerful corporations, with sales of $74.3 billion last year, had all but disappeared.

Even Philip Morris' own employees felt cut off--and ill-equipped to defend the company against attack. Although they collect some of the biggest paychecks in the industry and enjoy lavish benefits, employees responding to a massive in-house survey last year brought to the surface some surprising complaints. They made it clear they wanted senior managers to step up efforts to improve the company's image and to communicate more openly.

With its reputation--and its stock price--in shreds, Philip Morris recently embarked on an unprecedented campaign to rehabilitate its image. As part of that effort, it allowed BUSINESS WEEK behind the corporate veil for a series of candid interviews with managers of its far-flung operations.

The person who has had to confront the tough questions about smoking more directly than any other is the compact and combative man at the very top, Australian-born Geoffrey Bible. A thin-skinned accountant, Bible's tough-talking defense of tobacco quickly earned him the sobriquet ''the Crocodile Dundee of the tobacco industry.'' The company's many adversaries might dismiss him as a company mouthpiece motivated solely by greed. But a rare interview with the 62-year-old Bible, who has spent 31 years at Philip Morris, reveals a far more complicated figure.

If he had not been named CEO in 1994, a job for which Bible insists he had no ambitions, he likely would have retired by now. ''I've been working since I was 14,'' says Bible, whose first job was stamping dates on drivers' licenses for Australia's Transport Dept. ''I would have liked to retire at 60.''

Instead, Bible finds himself leading Philip Morris during the most tumultuous period of its 97-year history. Asked if he would have preferred to pilot the company in a less contentious era, Bible turns wistful. ''Life ain't like that, mate,'' he muses, between puffs on a Marlboro Light Menthol. '''Into each life some rain must fall. And too much has fallen in mine.' Ever hear that tune by the Ink Spots? It's the luck of the draw, isn't it?''

No one, however, could ever have anticipated the typhoon that has engulfed him and his embattled employees. In the last year, with litigation threats looming, Philip Morris stock has fallen by half, lopping $83.2 billion off its stock market value. That sum exceeds the total market cap of such companies as Mobil (MOB), Hewlett-Packard (HWP), and Eli Lilly (LLY). In Bible's own words, his beloved company has become ''the dog of the Dow.''

That's not something Bible will accept passively. In his years at Philip Morris, he has consistently shown a willingness to move aggressively to build up the company. As head of overseas tobacco operations from 1987 to 1990, he championed the purchase of local cigarette companies in former communist countries, a risky move that has allowed the company to build a commanding position in Eastern Europe.

Bible's most formative experiences, though, took place far from the corporate halls of Philip Morris. He speaks movingly of the five years he spent, from 1959 to 1964, working for a U.N. relief agency that helped Palestinian refugees in the Middle East. ''I've seen a lot of misery in my life,'' he says, recalling the thousands of people in extreme need of food, medical attention, shelter, and clothing he saw. ''If you see these little toddlers with flies all over their eyes, a rag over them and nothing else in 100-degree heat, you sort of get a real taste of what hunger is.''

WAGING WAR. It was something he never forgot. As a 1995 volunteer on a Citymeals-on-Wheels outing in New York, Bible heard that there was a waiting list of more than 1,000 homebound seniors. Within months, a $1.3 million check arrived from Philip Morris to wipe out the wait. Other sponsorships, though, have had to give way beneath the pressure of public opinion. Philip Morris supported women's professional tennis for almost three decades but gave it up a year ago. At an event attended by Chris Evert, Billie Jean King, and other tennis stars last November, Bible became so choked up as he recalled the company's crucial role in elevating the sport that he had to pause at the podium before finishing his remarks.

This glimpse into the private Bible hardly squares with the public image of a confrontational executive who has often posed for the annual report with a lit cigarette defiantly in hand. Initially as CEO, Bible waged war with critics, filing lawsuits against detractors, from television network ABC to the Food & Drug Administration. Then, in 1997, with his back to the wall, he sat at a negotiating table to hammer out the most controversial peace pact in business history. To the consternation of some of his own execs, Bible joined industrywide talks, agreeing to eliminate Philip Morris' venerable Marlboro Man from its ads and to pay an estimated $175 billion of the $368.5 billion settlement.

UPHILL BATTLE. Those first tentative steps out of the bunker didn't lead very far. The deal, announced with much fanfare, collapsed after 10 months, the victim of politics and public opposition. Bible now says he considers his efforts to gain a legislative settlement ''naive,'' though it did lead to the industry's subsequent $206 billion deal last November to settle lawsuits filed by 46 states to recoup smoking-related medical costs. Still, nearly every week brings more bad news: On Nov. 12, Philip Morris agreed to pay a record fine of $75,000 for failing to properly disclose the amount of money it spent to lobby New York lawmakers from 1996 to 1998.

Sitting in a sparse conference room on the 22nd floor of the company's New York headquarters, Bible clearly resents Philip Morris' pariah status. ''The company is filled with decent, hard-working people, no different than any other. We go to church. Our children go to school,'' he says. ''We need to do more to restore self-pride amongst our employees...and to have our place at the table like any corporation.''

He bristles at the widely held belief that Philip Morris executives lied about the dangers of tobacco. ''We are working all over the world in the most genuine, upright, forthright, honest fashion that we possibly can,'' insists Bible. ''I'm not aware of any lies whatsoever.''

Bible acknowledges that Philip Morris faces an uphill battle to regain the confidence of the public, a goal he hopes to achieve through the company's newly launched public relations campaign. Yet he plans no transforming moves to alter the company's portfolio of businesses, no plans for major acquisitions outside the company's core interests in tobacco, food, and beer. His strategy for Philip Morris has not changed: It is to fight hard and to win in the courtrooms. ''We will come out of it,'' he says. ''About that I have no doubt at all.''

Next to Bible, the man who has to worry most about the tobacco business is Michael E. Szymanczyk, the towering, six-foot-eight CEO of Philip Morris USA, the $5.2 billion domestic tobacco unit. It may well be the company's most difficult job, where professional strain and personal harassment come with the territory. When promoted in 1997, Szymanczyk became its fifth CEO in 10 years.

Szymanczyk, now 50, has had to develop a toughness that's almost unimaginable. Last year, just before Christmas, anti-smoking protesters showed up at his Connecticut home. They defaced an evergreen tree with empty cigarette packs, hung a mock wreath, festooned with cigarette butts, on the front door, and sang Christmas carols with crude antismoking lyrics. The incident upset his wife, but Szymanczyk says ''I can't be distracted by people like that. It's hard to believe someone would be so mean-spirited.''

He cannot recall the first time he got The Question, but when it comes up, usually in one of its gentler forms, he's ready. ''I don't want anybody to get sick,'' he says, ''but you can't live someone's life for him. You can't remove all the risks in life. That's what I believe.''

Szymanczyk had at least some idea of what he was getting into when he was offered a job at the tobacco company as senior vice-president for sales in 1990. His first instinct was to dismiss it out of hand. ''I wasn't so sure I wanted to go into the tobacco business,'' he recalls. ''It was a controversial business, and I just hadn't ever seen myself in it.'' A telephone call to a mentor, a businessman 20 years his senior, persuaded the former Procter & Gamble soap salesman to overcome his doubts. ''He told me: 'It's a tough business, but I've always thought those kinds of businesses need to have the very best people.'''

In attracting new talent to Philip Morris, Szymanczyk has to use a more creative approach. Rather than stage big campus recruiting drives, he and other top executives quietly cultivate relationships with likely candidates, inviting small groups to dinner. Szymanczyk puts a lot on the table: starting salaries of $40,000 and up, guaranteed bonuses, even tuition reimbursements. This year, Szymanczyk claims, 47% of those offered jobs took them--his best recruiting season ever.

Now the chief U.S. tobacco strategist is leading dramatic change at Philip Morris. After settling lawsuits with state governments a year ago, Philip Morris and indeed the industry have had to institute a radical shift in mind-set, from total noncompromise with antismoking forces to what Szymanczyk calls one of accommodation.

That shift is most apparent in the area of youth smoking. Szymanczyk has ended cigarette sampling and mail distribution of cigarettes, halted vending-machine sales, and banned mass-transit and outdoor ads. The company has also trained more than 30,000 retailers how to recognize fake I.D.s. All told, Philip Morris upped its investment in youth smoking-prevention programs tenfold this year to $100 million.

Distributing that money, however, has proved difficult. Recently, for example, Philip Morris awarded a $4.3 million grant to the National 4-H Council. Activists quickly mounted a lobbying effort to get state groups to reject the grants on the basis that Philip Morris' efforts are little more than public relations initiatives. More than half of them have since turned down the funding. ''Some of the stuff I see just amazes me,'' says Szymanczyk. ''We're trying to do things that are responsible, and you have people who say 'Don't take their money.'''

That emphasis on preventing kids from lighting up--along with rapidly escalating cigarette prices--has meant that Szymanczyk is managing an ever-shrinking business. For nearly two decades now, the U.S. market has been declining by 1% to 2% a year. In 1999, due to price hikes averaging 75 cents on a $2.35 pack to cover the costs of the industry's settlement, cigarettes sales will fall nearly 10%, the highest single drop ever.

Philip Morris, however, has shown it can be successful in a declining business. Last year, with industry shipments down 4.6%, the company's stable of brands attained a record 49.4% share. This year, its share is expected to climb to just over 50%. Marlboro alone will account for one of every three cigarettes sold in the U.S. But as the company pays hefty settlement charges, doling out $3.4 billion last year alone, U.S. profit margins have plunged--to 9.7%, down from 33.8% in 1996. ''Our objective is to take this business and to produce cash for the company to invest,'' says Szymanczyk. ''Long term, who knows what we'll be as a company?''

The man who will take up the slack for Szymanczyk is German-born Paul W. Hendrys. As tall and lanky as his American counterpart, Hendrys is chief executive of Philip Morris International Inc. At 52, he is a passionate consumer of his company's products, having smoked since 19. Yet, Hendrys says, he has quit some 20 times over the years, often for a few weeks or months, before restarting.

''Look,'' he says, in clipped, German-accented English, ''I have always had the intention to prove to myself that it's easy for me to quit. So very often when I go on vacation, I say: 'Look, I won't smoke at all.' So I quit for a couple of weeks, and then I'm back.'' Some might see in that pattern proof of cigarettes' capacity to addict, but not Hendrys. He believes the benefits of smoking, the pleasure he gains from it, and the stress it relieves, outweigh the risks.

OVERSEAS GROWTH. It's not surprising that Hendrys feels some stress. As U.S. markets shrink, overseas markets have become the critical avenue for growth. The company has only a 14% share outside the U.S., where higher percentages of people smoke, where nonsmokers are far more tolerant of the habit, where opposition is less organized, and--most important--where consumers are less litigious.

To exploit those markets, Hendrys has been refining a strategy he hit on almost 20 years ago, when he joined the company as a regional-sales director in Germany. Back then he used a savvy maneuver to outflank Reemtsa, his former employer: When Reemtsa tried to spark a price war by lowering the cost of West, its Marlboro-lookalike brand, Philip Morris introduced its L&M brand as the cheaper alternative. The move protected Marlboro's premium pricing, while smashing competition at the lower end. It also helped push Philip Morris' market share in Germany, the largest European smoking market by far, to 41%, up from just 10% in 1980.

Now, Hendrys' primary objective is to duplicate that success throughout the world as a way of offsetting the decline in smoking in the U.S. ''The American market is a big market, but we're talking here about a world market of 5.2 trillion cigarettes,'' he says, at international headquarters in Rye Brook, N.Y. ''And I tell you, we will take our fair share.''

Could anything stop Philip Morris' worldwide campaign? Protective governments remain a problem, and there is always the possibility that a strong antismoking movement could emerge. Hendrys is trying to use the experience in the U.S. to head off such a movement. The company now has 83 youth prevention programs in 55 countries outside the U.S., sometimes over the opposition of local competitors. ''We don't want kids to smoke because it exposes us to attack as an industry,'' says Hendrys.

It's also true, though, that Philip Morris dominates the high end of the market with its premium brands, cushioning it against any drop-off in smoking by kids. And if kids don't start smoking, where will Philip Morris get its future customers? Hendrys figures he can keep stealing share in a fragmented global marketplace.

The huge controversy over tobacco has obscured the Philip Morris corporate identity. Most people, for example, have no idea that the company owns Kraft Foods, the largest food company in the U.S. and the second-largest in the world, respected if not feared by rivals for its size, scale, and breadth. Called by some analysts the ''underappreciated asset'' of Philip Morris, Kraft is an operation whose stock market value alone is placed at $22 a share by Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. If that's true, with Philip Morris trading at around $26 a share, investors can buy the world's largest cigarette company and one of the largest beer companies for just four bucks.

As a 22-year veteran at Kraft Foods Inc., Robert A. Eckert has long evaded the center of the tobacco storm. But the thin-as-a-rail CEO, like nearly everyone else at Philip Morris, has been battered by its crosswinds. So Eckert, a Chicago-born nonsmoker with Midwestern values and tastes, has developed a personal strategy for handling the attacks. ''When you're at a cocktail party or some social event and somebody gets on the anti-Philip Morris bandwagon,'' says the 45-year-old executive, ''I usually take a few minutes and do a little time-out. Then, I start by acknowledging that Philip Morris companies make risky products.''

Does it work? Like many at Philip Morris, Eckert's defense of his company's core product sounds curiously rehearsed. ''Tobacco,'' he says, ''is a risky product. Beer is a risky product. There are foods [made by Kraft] that are risky products. I think that adults are wise enough to make decisions about those things. I am concerned about a society that might restrict or restrain those choices. You know, today it's tobacco. Tomorrow, maybe it's beer. The next day, it might be hot dogs,'' he says earnestly. ''I think I'm capable of deciding whether or not I want to eat a hot dog.''

That reasoning, of course, ignores the fact that hot dogs are not actually addictive. And apparently, not everyone at Kraft felt comfortable making such arguments after Philip Morris acquired the company in 1988. But unlike some of his co-workers, whose values wouldn't allow them to stay, Eckert stuck it out. At the time, he was vice-president for marketing and grocery products, the unit that now sells 1.75 million boxes of macaroni and cheese a day. ''We were partnering with a company which had a good history of building businesses and supporting the community,'' he says. ''So if somebody's going to own Kraft, I'd just as soon it be Philip Morris. They understand how things work. They're supportive of us.'' He says he treats Philip Morris the same way he would treat a board of directors.

WANTED: PATIENCE. Yet, he admits, the tobacco company's notoriety has been felt at the food company. An antitobacco group is waging a boycott of Kraft brands, and this year, activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Wisconsin staged protests when Kraft tried to recruit on those campuses. Worse, the faltering stock price has left many of the options Kraft executives received in the past four years well under water. In an era when the haves and have-nots of Corporate America are defined by whether they are in or out of the option pool, it is not a trivial concern.

The option issue is especially frustrating for Kraft execs because their performance has been stellar by any measure. With a relentless focus on cost reduction and product innovation, Eckert's Kraft now boasts the strongest volume growth in the food industry and the highest profit margins. It dominates almost every market it enters.

With that kind of performance, in the longest bull market in history, most executives and many managers would be sitting on paper gains in the millions of dollars. Instead, many of their stock options are almost worthless. Eckert has had to ask his managers to be patient and to remind them that, in the past 10 years at least, the stock's total returns have been strong. ''I get anxious when the stock is undervalued,'' he admits, ''but I also have a longer-term perspective on this. We're hitched to a stock that is depressed because of what's going on [with] tobacco. You have to be patient.'' So far, his reassurances have apparently satisfied many key executives--as has the company's recent decision to pay thousands of managers quarterly dividends on unexercised stock options.

One of the Philip Morris units that has been, in the words of Chief Operating Officer William H. Webb, in the ''casualty ward'' has been Miller Brewing. Mediocre advertising campaigns and lackluster marketing have caused Miller to lose market share in recent years. Bible, none too happy, engineered a change in management at Miller earlier this year, in hopes of reversing the decline. He picked an accomplished company troubleshooter in John D. Bowlin, an engaging and gregarious New Jersey-bred food executive to head the beer company.

Bowlin, too, has had to grapple with the controversy in his sister unit. He still vividly recalls one of the first instances. It was 1991 and he had been president of Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. for little more than a month when a reporter from the local Madison (Wis.) newspaper came to interview him.

''How do you like working for a company that kills people?'' the reporter asked.

''I don't accept the premise of the question,'' Bowlin said. ''I'm proud to work for Philip Morris.''

''But you didn't answer my question,'' the reporter pressed.
''Let me make myself clear. I don't accept the premise of that question.''

A public relations person steered the conversation in another direction, and when the story appeared the next day, the journalist reported that Bowlin replied tersely to the question, ''What's it like to work for Philip Morris, a maker of tobacco products?''

FUTURE PRESSURE? Angry, Bowlin pondered making a complaint but decided against it. ''I've never been burnt like the tobacco guys,'' he says. ''But you get a bad taste in your mouth. So now you're on your guard. You say: 'Screw it. No more interviews if this is how we're gonna get treated.'''

Bowlin got over it. But the experience gave him a sense of the grueling pressure his colleagues face daily on the tobacco side--a part of the business that he has never worked for. And as the head of a unit that markets another controversial product, Bowlin knows that at some point he could find himself caught in a similar firestorm of public outrage.

A handsome man of 48, Bowlin was marketing director of Ronzoni pasta at General Foods Corp. when it was acquired in 1985 by Philip Morris. During his years in management, Bowlin says, he has acquired the same single-mindedness found in many of the company's tobacco execs. ''Thank God they are tough,'' he says. ''A third of the so-called activists out there won't settle until the industry's dead, and then they'll turn their attention to the next industry.''

That, thinks Bowlin, could very well be his business. Miller will sell $4.3 billion worth of beer this year, second only to Anheuser-Busch Cos. in the U.S. Already, Bowlin is finding himself under pressure from activist groups and government agencies concerned with underage drinking, drunk driving, binge drinking on college campuses, and alcoholism. At the same time, he's under opposing pressure to rejuvenate the Miller brands and reverse a downturn in share.

As the father of two sons, 17 and 20, he faces similar conflicts in his private life. He believes that his company must act as a ''responsible corporate citizen,'' but he also believes that he must behave as a responsible parent. ''I find the best test is to look in the mirror,'' he says. ''When both roles are aligned, in terms of what I should do as a business professional and what I should do as a parent, I think I've got a pretty damn good decision.''

He sees no contradiction in the fact that he is a strict disciplinarian when it comes to his sons. ''I don't want them to drink,'' says Bowlin flatly. ''I sure as hell don't want them to drink and drive...I have zero tolerance.'' He also says that he doesn't want his sons to smoke. ''I don't think it's healthy for them. That's my job as a parent. That's not the government's job.''

To some extent, he also thinks it's Philip Morris' job. Over the years, Miller, like its competitors, has been lambasted for marketing efforts that critics say appeal to teenagers. But the brewer now sponsors a number of programs to combat underage drinking, from training sessions for bartenders to a ''Think When You Drink'' Web site. ''We do this not because of the law,'' says Bowlin, ''but because it's the right thing to do.''

In companies overwhelmed by litigation and the threat of bankruptcy, lawyers become all-powerful figures. Few have ever been more powerful than Murray H. Bring, 64, a onetime outside counsel for Philip Morris who in 1987 became the company's chief legal strategist and guardian of its assets. His rise to vice-chairman under Bible underscored both his formidable legal skills and the fact that litigation had become a central corporate focus. With every courtroom victory and defeat, the craggy-faced Bring has ridden the emotional roller-coaster with Bible and his beleaguered employees. It is a ride that never seems to end.

From the age of 10, Bring dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Attracted by ''the logic of the law,'' he was the first in his family to go to college, gaining his law degree from New York University, where he was editor of the Law Review. By any standard, he has had an enviable 40-year career in law, a stretch that has included a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, with whom he struck a close and enduring relationship, a stint with the Kennedy Administration's Justice Dept. and State Dept., and a senior partnership at Washington's Arnold & Porter, where he first came into contact with Philip Morris.

Years as a defense lawyer and the intellectual challenge of tobacco litigation have made him an unreconstructed advocate for the industry. Bring doesn't bother with the conciliatory gestures many of his Philip Morris colleagues have lately adopted. Twelve years of bruising legal battles have left him as pugnacious as ever. ''When I entered the legal profession,'' he says, ''it really was a profession. You didn't go into it to make a lot of money because you couldn't. Now you have plaintiff's attorneys who are flying around in their own Gulfstreams and collecting billion-dollar fees, which I find quite disgusting.''

Like most at the company, he believes the attacks on the company are largely motivated by greed. Unlike many others, though, he doesn't hesitate to say so. As far as he's concerned, the industry's defense is quite simple. ''Anybody who smokes is aware of the risks involved and makes an informed choice,'' says Bring. ''It's like anything else in your lifestyle: hang-gliding, using a snowmobile, or eating fatty foods.''

That is the logic Bring used in a landmark 1988 case against Rose Cipollone, who had suffered a wrenching, painful death from cancer. ''Nobody forced Mrs. Cipollone to smoke,'' he says. ''In fact, this was a woman who by her own testimony used to go to church every Sunday and say novenas in the hope that she wouldn't get lung cancer.'' Philip Morris won the case, and Bring, who sat in the front row of the Newark (N.J.) courtroom every day watching his lawyers defend the company, was thrilled. ''I thought that might very well have been the end of the smoking litigation, which shows how naive I was.''

His complacency disappeared in February, 1994, when ABC's Day One news program alleged that tobacco companies manipulated the levels of nicotine in cigarettes to addict smokers. ''I'll never forget watching that program,'' Bring says. ''I got so incensed that I immediately called up one of our outside lawyers and said I want to bring a libel suit.''

Philip Morris, with the enthusiastic support of Bible, sued the network and won. ABC retracted the allegation, publicly apologized to Philip Morris, and paid the company's legal fees. In Bring's conference room, he still displays a victory memento: a copy of ABC'S $3 million check, along with a miniature of the full-page ad the company ran in newspapers across the country with the headline ''Apology Accepted.''

Before that apology was offered, however, the Food & Drug Administration sought to regulate the industry. Congress rounded up the industry's chief executives, who lined up like guilty cons with raised hands to testify that tobacco was not addictive. The public was outraged by what it saw as sheer duplicity. Lawsuits began piling up in courts everywhere, ignited by leaked internal documents and whistleblowers such as former tobacco-exec Jeffrey Wigand, whose appearance on 60 Minutes formed the basis for the current movie The Insider.

Even a hard-liner like Bring thinks the industry brought some of its woes on itself with its aggressive stance. ''We probably made some mistakes in not reaching out to people earlier and trying to engage in a dialogue with our critics,'' he says now. ''It's understandable. We were constantly under attack. There was sort of a siege mentality. People on both sides just kept sharpening their spears.''

What bothers him most is the widely held perception that Philip Morris and its tobacco allies engaged in a massive fraud and deception. ''I know that isn't true,'' Bring says. ''If everybody in the United States could spend five minutes talking to Geoff Bible, they would realize that the things they are reading are not true. Here's a guy of total integrity, total honesty.''

In every court, but especially the court of public opinion, Bible and his company continue to fight an image deeply embedded in the public consciousness. The picture, repeated again and again in the movie The Insider, is that of the seven tobacco chieftains at a Congressional hearing, swearing to tell the truth.

It is a huge albatross, one that Bible struggles to explain away. ''The word 'lie,' I think, first came out in the 1994 congressional hearings,'' says Bible, ''where they asked each of the CEOs if they thought cigarettes were addictive. Each answered with his own personal opinion. They tried to fabricate that into the industry is lying about the properties of cigarettes. That is the birth of the tirade against us for being liars. I think it is unfair.''

Still, even Philip Morris' new Web site conceded in October that ''cigarette smoking is addictive, as that term is most commonly used today.'' So why did William I. Campbell of Philip Morris USA testify to Congress that tobacco was not addictive? Bible and his cohorts have a ready explanation--though one that falls back on the sort of legalistic hairsplitting that has made the public mistrustful. They say that Campbell and the other executives were bullied into yes-or-no answers and based their responses on the ''pharmacological'' definition of addiction.

Will such distinctions stand up on the far-off Judgment Day that Bible speaks of? That's for him and his conscience to decide. What's clear, however, is that so far they haven't swayed many people in the here and now.

By JOHN A. BYRNE

To read a letter to the editor about this story, click here.

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