This article is part of the Center for Media & Democracy's spotlight on front groups and corporate spin.
The Ninja Program was an internal "proactive media relations" program in which the Philip Morris tobacco company (maker of Marlboro cigarettes) recruited individual smokers to act as seemingly independent media spokespeople to oppose smoking restrictions and cigarette taxes. The program was described in a 1991 untitled PM document, an outline by Karen Daragan, then Administrator of Media Affairs for Philip Morris USA. Daragan described the rationale for the program:
"Smokers can respond better than we can to these zealots' positions on smoking restrictions and excessive taxation. Basically, we can get them [smokers] to deliver our messages for us and it works beautifully because they don't represent big bad tobacco co[mpany], have more credibility [and] can relate to the public better and talk about issues that are affecting them rather than have us talk for them like we did in the past. But they can also go a step beyond. They can...get the antis reacting to them which puts the antis on the defensive for a change.",
Daragan called PM's Ninja Program "a proactive media relations tool for us," and described how PM's method of recruiting smokers as spokespeople differs from those of other cigarette companies:
"We don't manage smokers rights clubs and organize meetings like our competitors do. What we do is go out and find the most articulate and devoted activists. We call them our ninjas. We feed them with our most powerful information and arguments, media train them and then have our public relations agency go out and pitch stories and set up interviews for them..."
She described how PM found their ninjas: "Right now we have about 30 trained media ninjas across the country ... We find them through correspondence with PM, through phone surveys and written surveys among the 12 million people on our database, through word of mouth, LTE's, and visible activists among the already existing smokers rights clubs across the states."
PM's "ninjas" were instructed to carry specific, corporate-defined messages to the media, including accommodation, civil liberties, fairness and self-determination. They were trained to be "reasonable and positive" to help deflect attacks on their credibility.
It is unclear whether the program persisted past the 1990s. The existence of the program makes it difficult for observers to determine if someone speaks publicly against smoking restrictions or taxes uses these arguments, to determine whether they are a truly independent spokespersons, or a media-trained "ninja."
The program was formally incorporated into PM's Media Affairs budget, which was funded out of PM's Corporate Affairs' budget. A 1992-3 PM Media Affairs Budget indicates Philip Morris paid $600,000 to fund the program that year, and that it was "folded into the legislative issues support" budget. The Ninja Program received the same level of funding annually through at least 1996, according to a PM financial forecast through 1996. 
There is no way to determine from documents whether the program persisted past the mid-1990s, whether it is still ongoing under another name, or whether PM retired it.
- Philip Morris
- Philip Morris Corporate Affairs
- Countermeasures against public health activities/programs
- Tobacco industry public relations strategies
- Tobacco industry surveillance
- Tobacco industry projects & operations
- Karen Daragan, Philip Morris Untitled speech October, 1991. Bates No. 2078755208/5213
- Philip Morris N344 Media Affairs Assistant Special Responsibilities List/Report. August, 1991. Bates No. 2070344893/4893A
- Philip Morris Corporate Affairs 930000 Original Budget (in Millions of Dollars) Budget. November 20, 1992. 19 pp. Bates No. 2040714422/4440
- Philip Morris Philip Morris U.S.A. Financial Forecast 910000 - 960000 Five Year Plan Report. March 5, 1992. 160 pp, at page 121 (PDF). Bates No. 2023770227/0386
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