The perimetric boycott: a tool for tobacco control advocacy
N Offen, E A Smith, R E Malone
See end of article for
Department of Social and
Behavioral Sciences Box
0612, University of
California, San Francisco,
CA 94143, USA;
Received 25 January 2005
Accepted 13 April 2005
Tobacco Control 2005;14:272–277. doi: 10.1136/tc.2005.011247
Objectives: To propose criteria to help advocates: (1) determine when tobacco related boycotts may be
useful; (2) select appropriate targets; and (3) predict and measure boycott success.
Methods: Analysis of tobacco focused boycotts retrieved from internal tobacco industry documents
websites and other scholarship on boycotts.
Results: Tobacco related boycotts may be characterised by boycott target and reason undertaken. Most
boycotts targeted the industry itself and were called for political or economic reasons unrelated to tobacco
disease, often resulting in settlements that gave the industry marketing and public relations advantages.
Even a lengthy health focused boycott of tobacco industry food subsidiaries accomplished little, making
demands the industry was unlikely to meet. In contrast, a perimetric boycott (targeting institutions at the
perimeter of the core target) of an organisation that was taking tobacco money mobilised its constituency
and convinced the organisation to end the practice.
Conclusions: Direct boycotts of the industry have rarely advanced tobacco control. Perimetric boycotts of
industry allies offer advocates a promising tool for further marginalising the industry. Successful boycotts
include a focus on the public health consequences of tobacco use; an accessible point of pressure; a mutual
interest between the target and the boycotters; realistic goals; and clear and measurable demands.
less landlord’s agent, by ‘‘cutting off all social and economic
relations and communications with him’’.2Boycotts have
been called by labour organisers, consumers, ethnic and other
minority groups, religious communities, and environmental
activists, among others, to redress a host of grievances.
While much has been written about boycotts,1–6very little
research has addressed boycotts relating to the tobacco
industry.7Yet in the last 50 years, more than a dozen boycotts
have been directed against the industry for many reasons.8–14
We examined these and other actions against the tobacco
industry to analyse what kinds of boycotts may be most
effective for tobacco control advocacy.
We identified tobacco related boycotts by searching
internal tobacco industry documents made available by the
1998 Master Settlement Agreement between the attorneys
general of 46 US states and the major US tobacco
companies.15 16We also searched major publications (using
the Lexis Nexis Academic Universe database and other
sources), and conducted interviews with organisers of recent
boycotts.17 18We analysed these actions using Friedman’s
taxonomy of boycotts3and considered how their short and
long term effects may have helped or hurt tobacco control
We identified a type of boycott, a variant of the secondary
boycott, which we call perimetric because the selected target
may be considered socially located at the perimeter of the
‘‘true’’ or core target. Such perimeter institutions, we suggest,
may function as a form of insulation or social boundary
protection for the core targeted institution (in this case, the
tobacco industry) that a perimetric boycott can challenge
or weaken. Based on these analyses, we argue that the
perimetric boycott has promise as a tobacco control strategy.
targets, predicting likely outcomes, and measuring boycott
oycotts have played an important role in social change
for centuries.1The term was coined in 1880 when Irish
peasants successfully shunned Charles Boycott, a ruth-
Types of boycotts
The consumer boycott is an attempt ‘‘to achieve certain
objectives by urging individual consumers to refrain from
making selected purchases in the marketplace’’.3Friedman’s
taxonomy of boycotts distinguishes between primary and
secondary boycotts.3A primary boycott targets the offending
party directly; a secondary boycott targets a secondary entity
affiliated with the offending party when that party is hard to
boycott directly—for example, a company that makes no
products for the retail market. The assumption is that
pressuring the secondary party will prompt it to urge the
primary party to acquiesce to boycotters’ demands. Another
strategy is to undertake a ‘‘buycott’’, an action that encourages
purchases to reward behaviour.3
Predicting and appraising success
Friedman suggests that many factors influence boycott
success.3For example, announcements should be made by
prominent individuals or organisations and identify well
known targets. The complaints should be perceived as
legitimate and uncomplicated. Successful boycotts usually
include: (1) widespread media coverage; (2) an image
conscious target; (3) target responsiveness to outside
pressures; and (4) realistic demands.3A successful boycott
is predicated on consumers’ ability to recall, identify, and
decline to purchase or support targeted products, services, or
organisations. Boycotts should be called when no competing
boycotts on related issues are extant and acceptable
substitutes for boycotted products are readily available.3
Abbreviations: ACT-UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power; APHA,
American Public Health Association; BAT, British American Tobacco;
B&W, Brown and Williamson; CLASH, Coalition of Lavender-Americans
on Smoking and Health; GASP, Georgians Against Smoking Pollution;
GLAAD, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation; LGBT, lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender; PM, Philip Morris; RJR, RJ Reynolds;
STAT, Stop Teenage Addiction to Tobacco
TOBACCO RELATED BOYCOTTS: EXAMPLES
The most prominent and long lasting tobacco related boycott
in recent years, instigated in 1984 by GASP (Georgians
Against Smoking Pollution) and adopted in 1990 by STAT
(Stop Teenage Addiction to Tobacco), was embraced in 1994
by Infact (now Corporate Accountability International).
Aware of the difficulty of boycotting tobacco (a limited pool
focused on the food subsidiaries of the tobacco giants,19
targeting Nabisco Foods, then of RJ Reynolds (RJR) and
Kraft Foods of Philip Morris (PM), now Altria.20Infact
demanded that PM and RJR ‘‘stop marketing that appeals to
young people, stop spreading tobacco addiction internation-
ally, stop influence over and interference in public policy on
issues of tobacco and health, stop deceiving people about the
dangers of tobacco, and pay the high costs of health care
associated with the tobacco epidemic’’.21At its height, the
boycott was endorsed by over 200 organisations22and a 2000
survey found that ‘‘16% of respondents familiar with the
company said they had boycotted its products in the past
Although PM viewed the boycott’s damage to the company
as ‘‘more perceptual than actual’’,24it closely monitored
boycott activities.25–27The boycott lasted until June of 2003,
when Infact called off the action28in acknowledgment of the
international Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.29
Infact declared victory, saying that the boycott had helped
force the tobacco industry to change its behaviour,17although
none of the demands were met. They were vague, unrealistic
or difficult to measure and the list of ‘‘do not buy’’ products
was lengthy, contrary to Friedman’s identified predictors of
boycott success. However, the boycott may have achieved
other aims, such as calling public attention to tobacco
industry practices and gaining recognition for Infact.
For several years, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against
Defamation (GLAAD), one of the leading national lesbian,
gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations in the
USA, hosted Brown & Williamson (B&W) sponsored Lucky
Strike smoking lounges at its annual fundraising banquets.
In 2001, the Coalition of Lavender-Americans on Smoking
and Health (CLASH), an LGBT tobacco control group,
organised opposition to the lounges.30(The first author is a
founding member of both CLASH and GLAAD.) According to
the then vice-president of CLASH, Bob Gordon, asking
supporters of GLAAD to boycott the banquets was considered
only after attempts to negotiate with GLAAD had failed. ‘‘The
last thing we wanted to do was harm one of our own groups
that does great work,’’ Gordon said. ‘‘But it was important
that GLAAD hear that many of its grass roots supporters were
uncomfortable with the tobacco link.’’18
CLASH members demonstrated at the 2001 San Francisco
banquet30and made a documentary about the smoking
lounge which further publicised the issue.31Nonetheless, the
smoking lounges remained in 2002. Without calling for a full
scale boycott, CLASH spearheaded an email protest in which
supporters urged GLAAD to discontinue the lounges, and
several long time GLAAD benefactors threatened to withhold
support. In 2003, GLAAD eliminated the smoking lounges.18
The CLASH action, essentially the threat of a boycott,
achieved its objective.
CLASH took advantage of the fact that GLAAD was
dependent on its membership, not on the tobacco industry.
This boycott sought to get GLAAD to eliminate the smoking
lounges, thereby denying the tobacco company a point of
access to the LGBT market and the public relations benefit it
derived from that association as a ‘‘friend’’ of the community.
Further, GLAAD’s discontinuation of the lounges would
emphasise community denormalisation of tobacco use.
Unlike conventional secondary boycotts in which the target
(GLAAD) is pressured to get the offending party (B&W) to
change, advocates sought only to get GLAAD to change its
own behaviour. This goal was within GLAAD’s power to
accomplish, since a beneficiary need not accept a donation.
Most tobacco related boycotts have not focused on the health
hazards of tobacco. However, an examination of their
unintended consequences offers cautionary lessons.
In the mid 1950s, white racists in the American South
conducted a boycott of PM for hiring African Americans,
advertising in their press, and supporting their civil rights.32
The boycott apparently had a negligible effect on the
company’s bottom line,33 34though the boycotters claimed
otherwise.35Decades later, however, PM mined the episode
for public relations purposes. When a 1985 New York State
Journal of Medicine article accused PM of trying to silence
African Americans on the dangers of smoking by financially
supporting their organisations,36PM’s vice president of public
affairs suggested responding with ‘‘the history of Philip
Morris’s involvement in the black community’’.37
produced an ad that touted its support for civil rights,
highlighting the fact that the company had previously been
boycotted by racists.38Thus the supremacists lost their
boycott on two counts: their objectives were not met, and
PM later used the boycott to public relations advantage.
Jewish community boycott
British American Tobacco (BAT) similarly enhanced its public
image following a 1956 boycott which was called after BAT
agreed to Arab demands not to sell certain cigarette brands in
Israel. To protest BAT’s action, American Jews boycotted
BAT’s US subsidiary, B&W, until it capitulated in 1961.39
Upon resolution of this boycott, B&W developed a plan to
‘‘build good will for the company and its products in the
American Jewish community’’40including advertising in the
Jewish press, funding Jewish community projects, and
soliciting awards for B&W from Jewish organisations.41
Reflecting later on its public relations successes, the company
noted, ‘‘For B&W, the accrued benefits have gone beyond the
Jewish community into other ethnic areas, principally the
Negro and Italian-American communities.’’39This action is
one of the few examples of a primary boycott of cigarettes
that worked. However, it never addressed tobacco’s dangers
and it provided the company with marketing and public
In 1990, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), a
US based AIDS activist organisation, instigated a boycott of
PM’s Marlboro cigarettes and Miller beer to protest the
company’s financial support for US Senator Jesse Helms
(R-NC), who was an outspoken opponent of funding for
AIDS and LGBT civil rights.7The boycotters demanded that
PM stop funding Helms and fund AIDS related causes
instead.42Although it generated a great deal of publicity,43–45
the boycott apparently had insignificant financial impact.46
The boycott ended when PM and ACT-UP brokered a
controversial settlement.47ACT-UP’s primary stated demand,
for PM to withdraw support from Helms, was not met. Its
secondary objective, securing money from PM for AIDS
funding, was achieved. This was a more practical demand,
and possibly ACT-UP’s real aim from the outset. PM shortly
The perimetric boycott273
thereafter began advertising and marketing to the gay
community, which it had never done before.48–52
The buycott, or ‘‘reverse boycott’’ as it is sometimes called, is
an effort to reward rather than punish. While there are few
examples of formally declared buycotts, there have been
many ongoing efforts to use rewards to further tobacco
control efforts which could be characterised as using reverse
boycott tactics. For example, in 1992, San Francisco’s Tobacco
Free Project published a restaurant guide to promote those
establishments that had voluntarily gone smoke-free.53In
1998, a campaign of the California Lavender Smokefree
Project publicised a list of LGBT organisations with ‘‘no
tobacco money’’ policies and used paid media to urge the
community to support them. Another example of a reverse
boycott is the November 2004 decision by the American
Public Health Association (APHA) to hold future annual
meetings only in smoke-free cities, which will have the effect
of rewarding cities that enact strong smoke-free workplace
Examination of these actions suggests that the boycott can be
a useful tool for tobacco control advocates, but it may have
unintended consequences. Therefore, tobacco control advo-
cates considering sponsoring or joining a boycott need to
carefully think through their strategies. Target, goals, and
potential outcomes must all be well defined. From the
perspective of tobacco control, the most successful boycotts
share certain interrelated characteristics, including: a focus
on the public health consequences of tobacco use; an
accessible point of pressure; a mutual interest between the
target and the boycotters; realistic goals; and clear and
measurable demands (table 1).
A boycott is part of a logical progression of actions that
should only be undertaken when less confrontational
measures have not worked. Sometimes, engaging the
offending party in dialogue is enough to achieve the desired
result, and should always be the starting point. For example,
in early 2004, an outpouring of letters convinced the
publisher of the Utne Reader, a US based culture and arts
publication, to reverse her decision to accept tobacco ads for
the first time.55She obviously cared about the opinions of her
readership, and may have feared the possibility of a boycott
had she been unresponsive.
Focus on health
Boycotts that focus on economic or political issues (such as
those by ACT-UP and the Jewish community) are unlikely to
advance public health. Because the demands of these
boycotts can be met without addressing health concerns,
any tobacco control organisation that supports such a boycott
may find itself tied to a settlement antithetical to its long
Boycotts that focus on public health, in contrast, are
consistent with the goals of tobacco control. It may be most
effective to focus on one issue at a time, keeping the message
as simple as possible. Advocates trying to stop the sale of
cigarettes in pharmacies, persuade arts organisations to
refuse tobacco funding, or eliminate the proliferation of
smoking in movies, for example, could use a boycott, if an
appropriate target can be identified.
Choosing an appropriate target
Boycotts of the tobacco industry itself are unlikely to be
effective. The financial and political resources of the industry
vastly outweigh those of tobacco control.56However, boycott-
ing institutions whose survival depends less on tobacco than
on the goodwill of members or customers may be effective.
Examples include community organisations with tobacco ties
(sponsorship, investment), retailers such as supermarkets or
pharmacies that sell tobacco products, and community or
special interest periodicals that accept tobacco advertising.
Boycotting such targets can take the traditional form of
declining to patronise (for example, supermarkets or period-
icals) or the innovative tactic of declining to support (for
example, community organisations). As the CLASH action
demonstrates, even the threat of a boycott can be effective.
We call such actions perimetric boycotts. Like a secondary
boycott, a perimetric boycott is aimed at an entity other than
what seems to be the primary target—in this case, the
tobacco industry. Unlike a secondary boycott, the perimetric
boycott does not expect its target to pressure that primary, or
core, target (figs 1 and 2). Rather, it only demands that the
perimetric target disengage from the core, ultimately remov-
ing the core’s protective armor of social acceptability.
The strategy of boycotting community institutions rather
than multinational corporations has parallels to the strategy
of achieving clean indoor air policies first at the local level,
and only then focusing on the state. Advocates have more
impact locally, and more control over the outcome.57The
strategy is not limited to local action, however; it could be
used on a statewide or even nationwide basis—for example,
to get a national chain to stop selling cigarettes.
The buycott rewards companies, organisations, cities, and
states that have adopted good tobacco control policies.
Friedman referred to it as ‘‘a positive behavioral model for
consumer activism’’.3The buycott by San Francisco’s Tobacco
Free Project, for example, supported individual restaurants,
demonstrated that no-smoking policies were good for
business, and paved the way for the citywide ordinance that
eventually extended the policy to all eateries. The APHA
action to schedule its meetings only in smoke-free cities
contradicts industry claims that smoke-free laws are bad for
business by rewarding those cities with lucrative convention
contracts, thus providing an incentive for others to follow
suit. Other possible targets for buycotts include periodicals
that refuse tobacco advertising,58pharmacies that do not sell
tobacco, and community organisations that refuse to accept
tobacco industry gifts.
Boycotts work best when activists and target have a mutual
interest in maintaining a relationship. This is patently not the
case between tobacco control organisations and the industry.
However, perimetric boycotts target a company or organisa-
tion with which negotiation is possible. In the CLASH action,
for example, advocates openly praised GLAAD’s mission,
Planning a tobacco control boycott
1. Focus on health
(a) Select single issue
(b) Keep it simple
Identify target that:
(a) shares mutual interest
(b) cares about its image
(c) is vulnerable to pressure
Choose realistic aims
Make clear and measurable demands that are perceived as
Plan exit strategy
(a) Be clear about:
– who decides when the boycott is over
– upon what criteria will the decision be based
(b) Anticipate potential consequences based on history of industry
responses to boycotts
274Offen, Smith, Malone
objecting only to its relationship with B&W. Successful
tobacco related perimetric boycotts seek to change not the
tobacco industry, but community institutions or organisa-
tions; the industry need not respond to achieve the boycott’s
To understand why mutual interest is important, consider
the example of the Infact boycott. Infact had no interest in
the survival of the tobacco industry. Had its demands
reflected its ideology, Infact might have called for the
industry’s elimination. However, a boycott calls for conces-
sions, not the end of business. By suggesting that meeting its
conditions (which did not include ending tobacco sales)
would settle the boycott, Infact implied the industry’s
legitimacy, however unintentionally.
Clarity of aims and demands
The aims of a boycott reflect the internal agenda of its
organisers and should be realistic. Aims may be specific, such
as getting a community organisation to stop taking tobacco
money, or general, such as attracting media attention to an
objectionable practice. Aims may differ from demands.
The demands of the boycott are the terms that the target is
asked to meet to settle the boycott. These should be clear
(specific and easy to understand) and measurable (quantifi-
able). Infact’s five demands met neither of these criteria. For
example, it would be daunting to determine when and if the
industry stopped ‘‘influence over and interference in public
policy on issues of tobacco and health’’, since the industry
influence is widespread and often clandestine. Infact did not
specify the parameters of this demand (nor any other),
rendering it vague and unmeasurable.
Sometimes organisers achieve their aims whether or not
demands are met. When this happens, boycott leaders may
offend supporters. For example, ACT-UP loudly demanded
that PM stop supporting Helms and quietly pressed PM to
fund AIDS causes. The Helms demand was consistently
rebuked but the funding demand—which settled the
boycott—was not. ACT-UP’s main aim may actually have
been to leverage funding, and the Helms demand a tactic to
get support for the action from a community that detested
Helms. ACT-UP was criticised by some boycotters for settling
without achieving its principal demand, although it may have
achieved its primary aim. The Infact boycott, while failing
to achieve its stated demands, may have met an organisa-
tional aim of drawing attention to issues of corporate
Consequences of success or failure
One final consideration is the potential consequences of the
action. A boycott may end when all or some demands are
met, when the tactic proves ineffective, or in some more
complex negotiation. Boycotters should be clear in advance
about who decides when the boycott is over, what criteria are
used to decide (absent achieving objectives), and how that
decision is presented publicly.
Infact, for example, declared victory, implying that the
industry had acquiesced to its demands. Could the industry
later use this boycott settlement to suggest it had become
socially responsible? Settlements can also change community
industry relations, as in the case of the ACT-UP and Jewish
community actions, where resolution helped PM and B&W
cultivate new markets. Awareness of how the tobacco
industry has benefited from previous boycotts may help
activists anticipate such consequences.
This analysis of boycotts suggests that tobacco control
advocates should be wary of boycotts that do not address
tobacco related disease. Not intended to promote tobacco
control, they may enable the industry to gain a foothold in
new markets, curry favour with established ones, or enhance
its philanthropic image. The tobacco industry is adept at
turning actions against it to its own advantage. Resolving a
boycott can involve negotiations that leave the industry in a
stronger position than it was before the boycott was called.
Our review suggests that perimetric boycotts of tobacco
industry associates, on the other hand, may be a powerful
tool. Current tobacco control efforts involve isolating the
industry from its allies, whether ‘‘natural’’ (such as cigarette
retailers), or cultivated (such as community organisations).
The perimetric boycott can effectively further this isolation.
Allies of the industry, open to mutually productive negotia-
tion, may be appropriate targets.
wholesalers, growers). The goal is to urge the secondary target to pressure the primary target to accede to boycotters’ demands.
Secondary boycott. Boycotters choose the secondary target (for example, retailer) because the primary target is inaccessible (for example,
example, retailer, donation recipient) to disengage it from the core target
(tobacco industry), turning it into a boycotter. The goal is to peel off the
protective cover of allies from the core. Boycotters do not demand
anything of the core target, having already disengaged.
Perimetric boycott. Boycotters pressure a perimetric target (for
The perimetric boycott275
A traditional secondary boycott seeks to get the proximal
target to apply pressure to the ultimate target, but in a
perimetric boycott, advocates need have no such expectation.
The action is not directed against the tobacco industry; its
power lies in shunning the industry, much as Charles Boycott
was ostracised economically and socially. The goal of the
perimetric boycott, then, is to sever industry alliances,
thereby reducing industry influence. Rather than expecting
a boycotted pharmacy, for example, to pressure the industry,
advocates need only expect the pharmacy to stop selling
cigarettes. However, if that boycott is successful, tobacco
control advocates may then institute a ‘‘buycott’’ to reward
the pharmacy for its public health leadership, gaining an ally
for tobacco control.
A boycott is at its root an invitation to negotiate; the
industry has recognised that and used it repeatedly to its
advantage. Conflict between community groups and the
industry is resolved to the detriment of public health when
negotiations lead to alliances between former antagonists.
The perimetric boycott, however, results in negotiations
between tobacco control advocates and community institu-
tions, shutting the industry out of the process. As these
adversaries become allies, the industry may be socially,
economically, and/or politically weakened. By using the
perimetric boycott, tobacco control advocates can turn the
negotiation process, potentially the biggest weakness of the
boycott as a strategy, into its biggest strength.
This work was supported by NCI grants CA090789 and CA09589 and
TRDRP grant 11RT-0139. We disclose that we have no funding ties to
the tobacco industry. The senior (third) author owns one share each
of Altria and RJ Reynolds stock for shareholder advocacy purposes.
We thank the members of the Tobacco Policy Research Group of
UCSF’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education for their
input. We acknowledge Monroe Friedman for his pioneering work in
the study of boycotts, and two peer reviewers for helpful comments
on an earlier version.
N Offen E A Smith, R E Malone, University of California, San Francisco,
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What this paper adds
Nearly 20 tobacco related boycotts have been documented
in internal tobacco industry files and elsewhere. No previous
research has examined these actions collectively to under-
stand what factors may determine whether a boycott may be
a useful or harmful tool for tobacco control.
We analysed these events and propose criteria to assist
advocates in determining when and if to undertake a boycott.
We identified a variant of the secondary boycott, which we
call ‘‘perimetric’’ because the selected target may reside on
the perimeter of the ‘‘true’’ or core target. Such perimeter
institutions may provide social insulation for the core target
(in this case, the tobacco industry). We suggest perimetric
boycotts may be a productive tool for advocates, helping to
peel away the protective covering of allies and to isolate the
industry. It is more likely, for example, that a community
organisation that cares about its reputation will agree to stop
taking tobacco money than that the tobacco industry will
agree to curtail its exports. Advocates should avoid boycotts
that do not address the dangers of tobacco. The industry has
often settled such boycotts with large financial gifts, gaining
significant market and public relations advantage as a result.
276Offen, Smith, Malone