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Cigarette Recall Leaves Retailers, Smokers Unruffled

May 28, 1995

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ What if the nation’s largest tobacco company called for a nationwide recall of about 8 billion cigarettes and nobody listened?

Despite Mailgrams to vendors and despite a legion of company officials dispatched to collect the cigarettes, smokers and retailers alike seemed unruffled or unaware of Philip Morris USA’s recall announcement Friday.

While big grocery chains like Safeway in northern California pulled packs of Marlboro, Virginia Slims and Merit from their shelves, many smaller vendors around the country didn’t. They said nobody told them they should.

``As far as business is concerned, we’re not going to do anything until we hear from the company,″ said Raja Chamoun at AD Tobacco in San Francisco. ``If we take Philip Morris cigarettes off the shelves, the store would be empty.″

Mike Zeidan, owner of Michael’s Pit Stop in San Francisco, took the same approach.

``I’ve heard the reports,″ he said. ``But nobody told me not to sell them. You’d think you would hear from Philip Morris. But I didn’t hear anything, so I didn’t do anything.″

Philip Morris issued a statement Friday afternoon, at the start of the long holiday weekend, saying it was recalling an estimated 8 billion cigarettes because of possibly contaminated filters that could cause wheezing and eye, throat and nose irritation.

David Laufer, public relations director for Philip Morris USA in New York, said Sunday that he could not provide figures on the number of cigarettes recalled so far or the number of people sent into the field, but did mention that sales representatives from other Philip Morris product lines, including Kraft Foods and Miller beer, were also working on the recall.

The company expects to personally contact all 370,000 retailers nationwide by week’s end, but there’s no need to wait, he said: ``Retailers should be pulling product off the shelf and waiting for the sales reps to get there.″ The company has sent Mailgrams to some vendors telling them to quit selling the possibly tainted smokes, advised consumers to turn in packs for a refund, and dispatched sales representatives to collect the cigarettes, saying it might take two or three days to contact stores.

Despite heavy news coverage, smokers continued to buy. As the weekend wore on, only a few turned in their packs or asked for refunds, some store owners around the country said.

``I’ve mentioned it to a couple of people (buying cigarettes), but they don’t seem to care,″ Clarence Benson, owner of Benny’s Liquor in Texas City, Texas, said Saturday. ``All anyone cares about down here is the (Houston) Rockets.″

Many smokers had not heard about the recall. Informed by reporters, some said they might be convinced to switch brands or cut back until it ends.

``It may sway me to cut back a little,″ Amtrak police Sgt. Kenneth Whitehurst said as he bought cigarettes at New York City’s Penn Station to feed the two-pack-a-day habit he’s had for 35 years.

At Fiddler’s Green Tavern in New York City, Paula Lillis relaxed after work with a box of Marlboro 100′s, ignorant of the recall.

``I probably will change,″ Lillis, a secretary for a construction company, said when told what it was about. ``I’m going to read the newspaper about this.″

The recall was prompted by a small percentage of filters tainted with methyl isothiocyanate, a chemical that can cause ``temporary discomfort″ ranging from a bad taste and eye, nose and throat irritation to dizziness, coughing and wheezing, the company said.

Philip Morris said it didn’t believe any cigarettes with the contaminated filters had been sold but was recalling 36 package styles just to be sure.

Those include the Marlboro red box, soft pack and gold box, and gold soft packs of Marlboro 100′s, Marlboro Lights and Marlboro Lights 100′s. It also includes various styles of Virginia Slims, Benson & Hedges, Merit, Cambridge and Basic.

Company representatives were to collect any packs that may be contaminated and give retailers a certificate and poster attesting that the remaining Philip Morris products meet company quality standards.


Eds: Philip Morris’ toll-free number offering recall information for consumers, wholesalers and retailers is (800) 757-2555.