How McKinsey Got Into the Business of Addiction

McKinsey now had another reason to back away from Big Tobacco. But the tobacco companies wanted to keep selling cigarettes, so McKinsey stayed to help them do just that. In addition to Philip Morris, the firm’s clients included RJ Reynolds, Lorillard, Brown & Williamson, British American Tobacco and Japan Tobacco International.

More health warnings followed.

In 1992, the federal judge H. Lee Sarokin became so outraged reading internal industry documents produced in a liability lawsuit that he cast aside judicial restraint when he wrote: “Who are these persons who knowingly and secretly decide to put the buying public at risk solely for the purpose of making profits and who believe that illness and death of consumers is an appropriate cost of their own prosperity!”

In response to mounting criticism, in 1993 Lorillard’s chief executive, Andrew Tisch, asked employees to cooperate with McKinsey, assuring them that the consultants were “renowned for their ability to solve problems and create opportunity.”

By taking on Lorillard, McKinsey agreed to help a company whose best-selling cigarette by far was Newport, with its high nicotine content and menthol flavor. Menthol masked the harsh taste of burning tobacco, making it appealing for novice smokers. Nicotine took care of the rest, turning them into repeat customers.

McKinsey did allow employees to opt out of helping Big Tobacco, or any other industry they found objectionable, but finding replacements eager to impress senior partners critical to their advancement was usually easy.

In 2006, a federal judge, Gladys Kessler, delivered the harshest condemnation yet of cigarette makers, branding them civil racketeers, saying the industry had “marketed and sold their lethal product with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their finance success, and without regard to the human tragedy or social costs that success extracted.”


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