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Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - In the last call for Philip Morris, stockholders of the nation's largest tobacco company voted overwhelmingly Thursday to change the corporate name to Altria Group.

Executives had sought the new name to better reflect the company's position as a diversified consumer products company, not just a cigarette maker.

The Philip Morris name - solidified with the public through the longtime radio advertising slogan "Call for Philip Morris" - will survive only in the company's tobacco operating divisions and in the stock symbol, which will remain MO. The name dates to the 1850s, when a man by that name opened a tobacco shop in London. The present company incorporated as the American subsidiary of the British company in 1902.

The name change, approved by 95 percent of eligible stockholders, came after nearly an hour of sometimes harsh criticism of the company's marketing policies from dissident stockholders.

Dr. Eva Kralikova of the Czech Republic asked the company to "change more than its name." She said Philip Morris' marketing is so pervasive in her country that a slang term there for a cigarette is "an America," and that the Marlboro Man image attracts young people.

Geoffrey C. Bible, who planned to retire as the company's chairman and chief executive officer after Thursday's meeting, said it is "simply naive" to believe that getting rid of the Marlboro Man will reduce youth smoking.

He said that most young people don't buy cigarettes, but get them from loose packs left lying around by adults.

"There are some who don't want us to change, they want to continue their adversarial, us-vs.-them environment," he said, drawing applause from the stockholders.

Anti-smoking groups say the company is doing little more than changing its name. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids took out a large ad in Wednesday's New York Times depicting a coiled snake with its tongue sticking out. It says: "No matter how often a snake sheds its skin … It's still a snake."

Last year, tobacco accounted for 61 percent of business for the company, which also owns Kraft Foods, Nabisco and Miller Brewing.

Security was tight at the meeting, which drew several hundred stockholders. About 20 to 30 protesters stood outside the factory gate in the rain.

The company is by far the biggest player in the tobacco industry in the United States, with 51 percent of the market.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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