Two decades ago, tobacco behemoth Philip Morris announced its intention to change its name to the Altria Group. It comes from the Latin word altus, meaning “high,” and according to company execs at the time was meant to suggest high performance. “When people say ‘Philip Morris,’ people don’t know which company you’re talking about,'” Steven C. Parrish, the company’s senior vice president for corporate affairs at the time, told The New York Times. “We’re more than a tobacco company, obviously, but there are a lot of people who don’t understand that.” Count among those people the estimated 3 million American women who died prematurely between 1980 and 2000 from smoking-related diseases.
No one was exactly fooled by the news of its proposed name change. “They are running away from tobacco,” David A. Kessler, Yale University medical school dean and former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said at the time. Matthew L. Myers, then-president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, said, “Instead of changing its business practices, Philip Morris has chosen a public relations campaign to divert attention away from what it does.” Philip Morris, which made and marketed such cigarette brands as Marlboro, Parliament, and Virginia Slims, may have also been the largest packaged goods company, but to consumers, Philip Morris meant tobacco. And tobacco increasingly meant death.