Campaign Profile: Licensed to Kill

Last month youth activists from around the world working with Essential Action’s Global Partnerships for Tobacco Control held a rally in front of the Altria/Philip Morris’ New York City headquarters one day after the company’s 2007 shareholder meeting. The youth staged an action Altria and handing out information to passersby. While youth activists have been taking on Big Tobacco internationally for some time, what made this action particularly interesting was that the activists were joined by rival tobacco company Licensed to Kill (LTK). At the rally, LTK representatives attempted to deliver the “Profiting off of Poison Award–Golden Coffin Award 2007″ to Altria representatives who declined to receive it.

Lest you think that tobacco industry representatives have finally come clean about the fact that their product, when used as directed, causes cancer, emphysema, heart disease and death, it is important to know that LTK is the creation of former corporate lawyer and now activist Robert Hinkley of Essential Action. However LTK is more than just a spoof; it is an actual tobacco company incorporated in the state of Virginia with the stated purpose of engaging in the “manufacture and marketing of tobacco products in a way that each year kills over 400,000 Americans and 4.5 million other persons worldwide.” Hinkley formed the company in order to make a point about both the tobacco industry and the protected status of corporations in American society, particularly those that operate at the expense of public health and safety. While LTK’s application raised eyebrows at the State Corporation Commission, as long as the name isn’t already registered and the applicant pays the filing fee, the application meets basic requirements, and the state has little choice but to grant a corporate charter. Thus, on March 19, 2003, Licensed to Kill was born.

One month later, anti-tobacco activists, including 200 youth, staged a protest at the Virginia State Capital to condemn the company, to call for stricter tobacco control and to stand in solidarity with tobacco control activists around the world. The activists were not alone. Licensed to Kill CEO “Rich Fromdeth” and other Senior VPs were at the state capital celebrating the founding of their new company. Company director Gray Vastone stated, “If a person was to ask the state for authorization to go on a serial killing rampage, he would surely be locked up in jail or a mental institution. Luckily, such moral standards do not apply to corporations.” As LTK executives attempted to introduce their new cigarette brands “Serial Killer,” “Genocide,” and “Global Massacre,” the youth activists booed and attempted to drown out their speeches. In an imaginative alliance, LTK and Essential Action work together to educate the media and the general public about the health hazards of tobacco, the tobacco industry, and the nature of corporations that profit at the expense of human health. In these staged confrontations, LTK “representatives” spoof Big Tobacco and Essential Action youth protest them and the tobacco industry at large.

Licensed to Kill’s website is a humorous critique of Big Tobacco. In the “about our company” section, LTK defines the five attributes that define their business as “a strong commitment to profits over people; excellence in marketing death; financial pay-offs; innovation in public relation spin, and an undying dedication to making a killing.” Their motto is “We’re Rich. You’re Dead!” Licensed to Kill separates itself out from other Big Tobacco companies through their dedication to transparency. They openly admit their products cause death and disease (and that they don’t care); they don’t attempt to improve their public image through a company name change, and they don’t state one thing publicly and another privately. Instead, LTK admits that they market to young people (“Duh! It’s plain common business sense!”) through brands like “Chain™”, a chocolate flavored cigarette. The company also admits it markets to African Americans and specifically designed the product “Slave” to celebrate the historical linkages between Africans and the tobacco industry.

While other tobacco industry representatives try to downplay the health hazards of smoking and secondhand smoke, (“The solution is really quite simple: just don’t breathe!”), LTK boasts that the death and disease caused by smoking is good for the economy: “When our customers eventually succumb to emphysema and cancer, they spend billions of dollars on oxygen tanks, chemotherapy, and medical operations. Every cigarette smoked represents money earned and a stronger American economy.” Big Tobacco is also good for the global economy, states LTK, and applauds weaker tobacco control regulations in countries around the world which allow them to market their products to larger numbers of youth and adults. Finally, Licensed to Kill representatives also laud the U.S. government for its granting corporations Bill of Rights protections such as the right to advertise a deadly product is protected under the guise of “free speech.”

Through mock documents on their website, press releases, and events staged throughout the world, LTK specifically critiques Philip Morris/Altria. For example, shortly after LTK’s incorporation, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner announced that Philip Morris would create 450 jobs in the Richmond area in return for a $25 million performance-based grant from the Virginia Investment Program. LTK responded that it would also seek a relocation incentive package from the state of Virginia. In order to increase its chances, company executives announced that they would invest $1 million in local Richmond area charities: “It’s a tried and true way of showing that, despite our company’s intent to kill 4.9 million people annually, we’re really a good corporation citizen – every dollar we donate buys us the freedom to continue business as usual,” stated Senior VP Corrie Prutspin.

In 2004 the company issued a press release stating LTK executives were in Thailand to attend the ASEAN Art Awards and to “lend Philip Morris support in defending their industry’s right to use art to cover up the 5 million lives it kills worldwide and every year – including more than 40,000 in Thailand alone.” Company spokesperson Virginia Slime also announced LTK’s support for efforts to prevent the ratification and implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The company had previously praised the Bush Administration for its efforts to gut the treaty. Rich Fromdeth declared, “A ban on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship would eliminate one of our industry’s most effective avenues for hooking kids and young adults to our addictive product line. It’s heartening to have a president who stands up for the Big Guys, however unpopular or detrimental to public health it may be.”

In June of 2005, LTK issued a press release announcing that executives would be in Washington, DC to lobby DC city council member Jim Graham against supporting smokefree workplace legislation. CEO Rich Fromdeth argued, “If he cares at all about the health of the tobacco industry, he will take a stand for maintaining the smoky status quo.” Senior VP Virginia Slime continued, “Unlike our industry rival, Altria, which gave the Metropolitan Restaurant Association of Washington $10,000 for its awards ceremony last week, Licensed to Kill believes in direct lobbying.”

Essential Action’s humorous and over-the-top approach both provides information about Big Tobacco and also generates media and public interest in tobacco control, especially among young people. It demonstrates that small organizations can contribute to the changes in public consciousness that will be needed to reduce the harm from tobacco and other lethal but legal products.