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Philip Morris by another name

By T.K. MALOY, UPI Deputy Business Editor

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 (UPI) -- Philip Morris, the global tobacco and food giant, and one of the most well-known business names in the world, wants to change its corporate moniker to Altria Group, according to the company.

The name change come after over a century of operation under the name of English tobacconist Philip Morris who opened his retail tobacco shop on London's Bond Street in the mid-1800s. The company incorporated in the United States in the early 1900s.

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While perhaps world renowned for cigarettes, Philip Morris is also somewhat world reviled in many quarters for producing a product that is ostensibly inimical to human health. By changing its name to Altria - from the Latin "altus" meaning "high" -- the company said it seeks not only to communicate a striving for something higher, but also emphasize that Philip Morris is a also a food titan, not just a cigarette giant.

Philip Morris chairman and Chief Executive Officer Geoffrey C. Bible told employees in a statement the name change is being proposed for two reasons:

"Our parent company's new name, which we propose to be 'Altria Group, Inc.,' should help clarify our corporate identity, making it clear to people how to refer to our tobacco companies and how to refer to the parent company."

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The second reason Bible cited was the business evolution of Philip Morris Companies Inc., adding, "We are not the same family of companies we were just a few years ago. The Nabisco acquisition and the Kraft initial public offering are the most recent evidence of our growth and evolution."

According to the company, the individual operation divisions -- Philip Morris U.S.A., Philip Morris International, Miller Brewing and Kraft Foods - will each retain their current names, though the parent moniker is changing.

The proposed name change comes amid ongoing mammoth lawsuits from individuals and various U.S. states that seek to claim damage compensation from the company for individual deaths blamed on smoking-caused cancer or for large-scale public health cost related to the ills of smoking.

On the financial front, the company currently receives 65 percent of its net profits and 61 percent of its revenue from the United States and international sale of tobacco products. Its popular cigarette brands include Marlboro and Virginia Slims.

According to the company, the name-change measure to clarify the parent company identity comes two years after the kickoff of an effort to improve the image of the Philip Morris group. Company research indicates the group is viewed as changing for the better and becoming a more responsible corporate citizen, among other indicators of favorable public opinion.

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Among other groups, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids blast both the proposed name change and the Philip Morris group's public-relations efforts.

"Philip Morris is changing its name because it is unwilling to change its harmful business practices and it has been unsuccessful at changing its reputation despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to do so," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This is a desperate and cynical act by a company that realizes its massive public relations campaign to convince the public that it has changed has been a total failure."

The proposal will be put to a vote by shareholders at the Phillip Morris annual meeting in April 2002, with shareholders being notified through the company's proxy statement of the proposed change.

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