Now that marijuana legalization in the U.S. appears to be just a matter of time, Big Tobacco may try to reap some profits of its own from the booming industry.
The Internet was ablaze last week with the announcement that tobacco giant Philip Morris had created marijuana cigarettes known as Marlboro “M.” The only problem is that the article announcing that marijuana cigarettes were now available for sale in marijuana-licensed outlets in Colorado, and soon in Washington state, was a hoax.
Posted on the news outlet Abril Uno — Spanish for “April One,” hinting at an April Fool’s Day connection — many didn’t read the disclaimers on the site saying that the content is satirical and is for entertainment purposes only, resulting in the story going viral.
While some applauded what appeared to be Big Tobacco’s acceptance of marijuana legalization, others expressed concerns that like tobacco-filled cigarettes, Marlboro marijuana cigarettes would have “tar and other crap” in them as well.
Despite the parody’s warnings, many Americans read the “interview” with the faux senior vice president of marketing at Philip Morris, a Mr. Serafin Norcik, as if it was real. Even when “Norcik” reportedly told Abril Uno that Philip Morris had contacted former drug lords in Mexico and Paraguay to set up a distribution ring across North and South America, many Americans didn’t bat an eye.
Instead many began to debate whether it was a good idea for the U.S. to import marijuana from drug lords, and some said that they would continue to “grab an eighth from their home boy” to ensure that their weed was free of nicotine.
Part of what may have made this story circulate so widely as “news” instead of a parody is that while the world’s largest cigarette producer has not yet entered the marijuana market, there have been rumors circulating since the 1960s that Big Tobacco was looking for a way to profit from pot.
Marlboro and the ‘real’ marijuana connection
According to a report in Business Week from Sept. 6, 1969, leading cigarette companies purchased large plots of land in locations such as the southern U.S. and Mexico, where marijuana can be grown fairly easily. The report also claimed that Big Tobacco companies also copyrighted names for marijuana cigarettes such as “Acapulco Gold,” “Tijuana Gold,” and “Morocco Red.”
In response, Frederic Panzer of The Tobacco Institute, Inc., sent a letter to Rolling Stone in 1971, saying that the industry wanted to set the record straight about its interest in marijuana, which he said simply didn’t exist. The letter included statements from six major cigarette companies, all of whom said that marijuana is illegal and the company has no interest in illegal drugs.
Hoping to set the record straight once and for all, Rolling Stone journalist Abe Peck visited the headquarters of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Arlington, Va., in 1977 and was told by C. Morten Wendt, the director of trademark examining operations, patents couldn’t exist unless marijuana was legalized.
“You see, the owner of a trademark acquires property rights through use of that mark before the public as a means of identifying goods,” Wendt said. “Now, trademarks for marijuana are not registerable (sic). The mark must be in lawful use in order to be registered. Our government has not legalized the sale of marijuana. Therefore, marijuana is not a product that moves in commerce. Therefore it cannot have a registerable (sic) trademark.”
When Peck asked if tobacco companies could potentially transfer their trademarks within the smoker’s article class, Wendt granted it was possible, but said he doubted tobacco companies would do such a thing.
“Even if marijuana becomes popular, there’s such a thing as the good will of the product,” he said. “The product has been established as a tobacco product, and not everyone who smokes tobacco would want to smoke marijuana. I think it would be very poor business policy. If it was not labeled that the ingredient had been changed, the purchaser would have cause of action against the owner of the mark.”
Now that marijuana legalization in the U.S. appears to be just a matter of time, Big Tobacco may try to reap some profits of its own from the booming industry. If and when that happens remains to be seen, but it’s likely companies like Philip Morris are preparing now to target a whole other kind of smoker.