Welcome to Marlboro Country: Philip Morris Stakes a Last Claim in the West

Her experience reflects a changing market, one that clouds the outlook for cigarette promotions like the ranch. "The rate of cigarette smoking in the United States has been declining for over 30 years, and we expect that it will continue to decline," David Sylvia told me. A recent Gallup poll found that just one in five adults reported smoking in the previous week. That rate that has never been lower -- it's less than half of what it was when Marlboro's cowboy first gazed past the camera. Philip Morris's cigarette sales flat-lined last year, just above a three percent industry-wide decline.

In October 2011, with business flagging, Altria announced a plan to cut $400 million in costs, primarily in "cigarette-related infrastructure," by the end of this year. Opportunity is rich overseas: in 2008, Altria spun off its foreign operations to free them of U.S. legal and image entanglements, and Philip Morris International has been reaching into markets like China, where some 40 percent of the world's cigarettes are produced and smoked.

But "cigarette smoking still is legal in this country," Sylvia said, "and Philip Morris USA will continue to try to market in a responsible way so that when adults who do smoke decide which brands to choose, that they'll choose Marlboro."

Along with the rest of the industry, Philip Morris has been emphasizing the small but growing smokeless category, and some companies are expanding into new territory altogether (Lorillard, one of Altria's major competitors, recently purchased a company that manufactures electronic cigarettes). According to Sylvia, "One of our goals is to find ways to reduce the harm related to tobacco use. What that means for the long term, for the Marlboro brand, and thus the Marlboro ranch? It's hard to say."

The pursuit of free land in the West is, after all, a dated idea. The U.S. Census Bureau declared the frontier closed in 1890, and the Crazy Mountain Ranch is marked with the footprints of earlier pioneers: stretched out in the southern shadow of the Crazies, where William Clark passed on his return journey from the Pacific coast, its buildings raised from fallen ones. But for now, the parties and the promise carry on in Marlboro Country, as the sun burns down into the western horizon, glowing orange and then extinguished.

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Sarah Yager is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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