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Smoking War

Oct 08, 1999 1630 Words
The war on smoking has existed for decades. With the

advent of more tenacious laws prohibiting smoking in public

locations, and most recently Minnesota's historic tobacco

settlement, many actions against "Big Tobacco" have become more

successful. Anti-smoking campaigns have become more

confrontational, directly targeting tobacco companies in an

effort to expose its manipulative and illegal marketing tactics.

On the surface, last November's $206 billion settlement

agreement between the tobacco companies and 46 states looks like

a serious blow for Big Tobacco. In addition to the money, it

contains some important concessions: a ban on outdoor

advertising, limits on sports sponsorships and merchandising, no

more "product placement" in movies, and they have to close the

Tobacco Institute and other instruments. And Joe Camel - along

with all other cartoon characters - is gone for good.

Yet this did not hurt the tobacco industry's ability to

sell cigarettes. On Nov. 20, the day the attorneys general

announced the settlement, the stock of the leading tobacco

companies soared. After all, the Big Four tobacco makers will

pay only 1 percent of the damages (at most) directly; the rest

will be passed on to smokers through higher prices. Since many

states are already figuring the settlement money into their

budgets, this puts them in the odd position of depending on the

continued health of the tobacco industry for their roads,

schools, and hospitals.

Punishing the industry, in other words, doesn't

necessarily address the root of the problem - reducing demand

for cigarettes. And that won't go down until we all face the

fact that smoking is once again cool. In the 1980s, scarcely any

teenagers smoked. However, according to the Centers for Disease

Control and Prevention, teen smoking rose 73 percent from 1988

to 1996.

As long as movie stars like John Travolta and Uma Thurman

flirt gorgeously through a haze of cigarette smoke, as long as

it drifts through all the right nightclubs and bars and

hang-outs - not to mention the magazines and posters and

billboards - teenagers will find ways to smoke, no matter how

many public service announcements or laws are written to stop

them. Most of these kids know that smoking fills their lungs

with toxins like arsenic, cyanide, and formaldehyde. They'll

even recite the statistics to you: Smoking kills over 1,000

people a day in this country alone, and is far deadlier, in

terms of mortality rates, than any hard drug. And then they'll

blow their smoke into your face.

The only way to get any leverage with teenagers is to

return fire with fire, taking on the various influences that

make smoking seem attractive. We need, in other words, to find

new ways to make smoking look ridiculous.

John F. Banzhaf III had no particular animosity toward the

cigarette companies when he sat down in his Bronx home on

Thanksgiving Day 1966 to watch a football game with his father.

He was struck by a cigarette commercial that seemed to glamorize

a habit that both his parents practiced. While at Columbia

University School of Law, Banzhaf had studied the ''fairness

doctrine,'' a Federal Communications Commission policy that

required broadcasters to offer free air time to opposing views

on controversial public matters. He wondered whether the

doctrine could be applied to cigarette advertising. It had never

been applied to commercials before, but the FCC ruled in

Banzhaf's favor. By 1967 broadcasters were airing one

anti-smoking ad for every four cigarette ads, on prime-time


Bleary-eyed football fans who managed to hang on beyond

the last bowl games witnessed history 90 seconds before midnight

on New Year's Day 1971 when four Marlboro cowboys galloped into

the TV sunset. From then on, cigarette companies would never

again be allowed to advertise their wares on television or


Between the years of 1967, when the anti-smoking ads first

aired on television, and ending in 1970, when they went off, per

capita cigarette consumption dropped four years in a row -

something that had not happened since the turn of the century.

Naturally, there were other reasons for this decline, but

researchers tend to agree that the ads were a powerful factor.

They also permeated the culture in ways that can't be

quantified, making people less likely to associate cigarettes

with glamour. In Hollywood movies, where smoking had been

seemingly mandatory for decades, cigarettes disappeared like the

hats from mens' heads. Only 29 percent of movie characters

smoked in the 1970s- less than half as many as before or since.

Most of the ads were produced by the American Cancer

Society and the American Lung Association, and they were so good

that the tobacco industry began to panic.

They were clever too, however cigarettes didn't really

disappear from television. With all the money they saved on ads

(close to $ 800 million a year in current dollars), the tobacco

companies managed to make sure that major sports events would

occur against the backdrop of a massive cigarette ad. They

sponsored tennis tournaments and drag races; they poured ads

into newspapers and magazines; they papered highways and inner

cities with acres of billboards. They crafted new brands to

specific demographics - Eve, Misty, and Capri for women,

following the launch of Virginia Slims; Uptown and Kool for

African Americans; American Spirit for Native Americans.

Movie industry spokesmen claim that product placement

hasn't happened since 1990, and last November's settlement now

forbids it. And it should be said that Hollywood directors are

far more likely to be slaves to fashion than to the tobacco

industry. But whatever the reason, by the mid-1990s, Hollywood

movies were once again filled with smoke. According to the

American Lung Association, in 133 top movies produced in 1994

and 1995, 82 percent of the lead or supporting characters smoke.

In fairness to Hollywood, the anti-smoking movement itself

may deserve some of the blame for recent increases in teen

smoking. Like so many social crusaders before them, they've

occasionally lapsed into self-righteousness - thereby inviting

teens to take up cigarettes as the torch of fashionable

rebellion. They have supported laws that allow police to arrest

and fine teenagers caught with cigarettes - a strategy that

blames the young smoker instead of the marketers.

The tobacco companies have worked hard in recent years to

dress their product as "forbidden fruit". They've supported laws

that allow police to arrest and fine teenagers caught with

cigarettes, and promised not to oppose them as part of last

November's settlement. And they've launched massive campaigns

that are designed, supposedly, to combat teen smoking.

The best approach seems to be the one that worked back in

the late '60s: satire. California, which funds anti-smoking

commercials with the proceeds of a 25-cent cigarette surtax

passed in 1988, has led the way in this area. One of their

recent ads features a group of distinguished young men in

tuxedos who light their cigarettes as a gorgeous young woman

walks in. As the announcer tells us about the link between

smoking and impotence, their cigarettes suddenly go limp - and

the woman looks mockingly at them and walks away. "Cigarettes,"

the announcer says. "Still think they're sexy?"

These campaigns represent a promising start. But as the

California example suggests, they're vulnerable to political

meddling. At the national level too, the tobacco industry, with

typical agility, has found a way to undermine them. Buried deep

in last November's settlement agreement is a clause stating that

the money spent on anti-smoking ads through a national

foundation created by the settlement for that purpose shall be

used "only for public education and advertising regarding the

addictiveness, health effects, and social costs related to the

use of tobacco products and shall not be used for any personal

attack on, or vilification of, any person (whether by name or

business affiliation), company, or governmental agency, whether

individually or collectively."

In other words, the settlement bars the kinds of ads that

have been so successful in California and Massachusetts. The

restriction isn't watertight - it only applies to the foundation

created by the settlement, and states could use other funds to

pay for anti-smoking campaigns. But that's not likely, given

that the foundation is slated to get $ 25 million a year for

education and media purposes. And many states have already made

it clear that they intend to use the rest of the money to fill

gaps in their budgets. New York City plans to use its share to

clean up public schools, Los Angeles wants to repair its

sidewalks, Louisiana will reduce the state debt, and Kentucky

may use some of its money to help ailing tobacco farmers. Many

of these states may find themselves running toothless

anti-smoking campaigns - which is precisely what the tobacco

industry wants.

Bibliography " Proposed tobacco industry settlement" 20 June 1997

Kluger, Richard. Ashes to Ashes Los Angeles, Calif.: Vintage

Books, 1997 S.1414

Universal Tobacco Settlement Act (Placed in the Senate) 7

November 1997

Hamilton JL. "The demand for cigarettes: advertising, the health

scare, and the cigarette advertising ban." Review of Economics

and Statistics 1972;54:401-11

Goldman LK, Glantz SA. "Evaluation of antismoking advertising

campaigns." JAMA 1998;279:772-7

Siegel M., "Mass Media Antismoking Campaigns: A Powerful Tool

for Health Promotion." Ann. Intern Med., 1998;129:128-132

Federal Trade Commission, "1997 Federal Trade Commission Report

to Congress for 1995, Pursuant to the Federal Cigarette Labeling

and Advertising Act," 1997.

Hu T, Keler TE, et. al., "The Impact of California anti-smoking

legislation on cigarette sales, consumption, and prices."

Tobacco Control. 1995;4(Suppl 1):S34-8

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