The War on Smoking: Anti-smoking Campaigns

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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 their 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 the Tobacco Institute and other instruments have to be closed. 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. 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.

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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 hangouts – 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 smoke another cigarette.

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 airtime 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. 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 men’s 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 smoked.

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.” 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.


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