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Tobacco Giant Philip Morris Pledges 'Spirit of Cooperation' at Meeting

By John Mintz
The Washington Post

Philip Morris Cos. Chairman Geoffrey C. Bible, in his first public comments on attempts to settle legal battles engulfing his industry, told shareholders Thursday that he will negotiate with adversaries in "a spirit of cooperation."

Bible's remarks, made at the cigarette company's annual stockholders meeting, came a week after 22 state attorneys general announced they are negotiating with industry executives to settle anti-tobacco lawsuits.

"We will listen to and explore all reasonable measures that make sense, and are in the interest of you, our stockholders," said Bible, who also is the firm's chief executive.

The Australian-born Bible, who in the past has mounted slashing attacks on anti-smoking activists and government regulators, also extended a smoldering peace pipe to the Food and Drug Administration. A federal judge in North Carolina is scheduled to render a key ruling Friday on whether the agency can regulate the industry.

While calling the FDA's claim of jurisdiction over tobacco "unlawful and unreasonable," Bible said he's "prepared to work with responsible government representatives and others to develop a consensus about a regulatory system that would be balanced, reasonable and effective.

"Many people have good ideas, and with a little trust and a spirit of cooperation, there can be a change for the better," he said.

Company executives have made similar statements before, but Wall Street apparently liked what Bible had to say. The company's stock rose $1 to $41.75.

Shareholders overwhelmingly defeated three proxy proposals after Bible gently jousted with the dissidents who offered them. But while most anti-cigarette proxies in the past garnered no more than 6 percent of the vote, one proposal Thursday - demanding the firm do more to discourage youth smoking overseas - won 10 percent of shareholders' votes.

The Rev. Michael Crosby, representing the Capuchin Franciscan order, criticized the company's "distortions and lies," and urged it to ban cancer-causing agents from cigarettes. His proposal was defeated.

The 1,000 shareholders in attendance lustily applauded Bible's upbeat presentation about the firm's surging sales and profits.

The world's largest and most profitable consumer packaged goods manufacturer, Philip Morris last year earned $6.3 billion on $69 billion in sales of Marlboro cigarettes, Miller beer, Maxwell House coffee, Raisin Bran cereal and other products.

Many of the people in the audience appeared to be small shareholders, and they wore stickers proclaiming, "I'm Proud to Be a Philip Morris Stockholder." Several rose to praise Bible for his courtliness in hearing out the dozen or so anti-smoking activists.