One shareholder's lonely pro-smoking battle

AP News
Posted: May 17, 2012 2:19 PM
One shareholder's lonely pro-smoking battle

This time of year, shareholders bombard corporations with suggestions about executive pay, governance and other arcana. But once in a while, an idea comes along that truly stands out.

This year's prize may go to Daniel Morrison, who asked Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, to resurrect TV and radio ads for its cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

His logic? It's the only way that potential customers will find out about new products, or be lured to switch brands. He also asked Altria to examine how it could advertise online, on smartphones, by text message and on satellite radio.

In a letter to Altria's board, Morrison wrote that "hundreds of millions" of Americans have never heard slogans like "Come to where the flavor is" or "You get a lot to like with a Marlboro: filter, flavor, pack or box."

"This proposal is not about selling more cigarettes," he wrote. "This is about freedom."

Morrison described himself as a retired city employee who owns about $9,500 worth of stock in Altria, which held its annual meeting Thursday in Richmond, Va.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, which catalogued his letter along with other shareholder proposals, isn't allowed to release details about Morrison, including contact information.

Altria asked the government for permission to exclude Morrison's proposal from its shareholder ballot. For one thing, the company points out, Morrison didn't send a written notice that he intends to hold his shares through the meeting, as the SEC requires, or even proof that he is a shareholder.

More important, his proposal would require breaking the law: Tobacco companies have been banned from advertising cigarettes on TV for more than four decades. They're also forbidden from any marketing that could be construed as youth-oriented, and the government is considering more restrictions on advertising tobacco products via new media and technology, such as the Internet, email and smartphones.

The SEC almost certainly would have granted Altria's request, but as it turns out, it never had to. The day after Altria sent the SEC and Morrison a letter with its objections, the company's legal department received a brief email.

"To whom it may concern," it said. "Please withdraw my proposal dated 11-29-11....Thank you, Daniel Morrison."

An Altria spokesman declined to comment beyond the company's filings.