Blowing Smoke

By Ray Schultz

The liquor peddlers we covered last week may seem like the ultimate marketing lowlifes. But there is an even worse group.

The tobacco pushers. They’ve used promotion, advertising, direct mail and every known discipline to hook smokers. And while we’re all responsible for our own vices, they helped kill many people.

Prior to 1900, most tobacco was either chewed or rolled at home in cigarette papers, like marijuana today. The rare person who smoked consumed an average of 16 cigarettes per year, and most women did not smoke at all.

Then mass production came into play, enabling tobacco companies to produce thousands of cigarettes in the time it previously took a smoker to roll one.

Smokes were now available by the pack in every town in the country. And, thanks to lobbyists, tobacco was exempted from the Pure Food an Drug Act of 1906. The result? The tobacco kings avoided the regulations that plagued the manufacturers of patent medicines and many other products.

But the biggest boost to the prosperity of the cancer merchants came with the development of mass advertising. By the mid-1920s, brand names like Lucky Strike and Camel were plastered on billboards and on the pages of magazines. They depicted smoking as an attractive pastime, and linked it to sporting activities and romance. An early Chesterfield ad showed a pretty young girl telling her boyfriend, “Blow some my way.”

The tobacco lords were not merely competing with each other to sell cigarettes, they were creating a market that never before existed. In a few years, thanks to subliminal advertising and popularization of smoking by movie and sports idols, millions of men, women and children picked up the habit. Then the coffin nail sellers received an unexpected bonus: mass addiction. As we now know, the physical habit is equaled by a psychological dependence so powerful that people light up cigarettes without even thinking about it.

Once they realized it, the ciggie manufacturers wasted no time in exploiting this fact. For starters, they aimed their advertising at young non-smokers instead of at people who were already hooked. They targeted women. And they sent thousands of free cartons to veterans’ hospitals and servicemen stationed overseas. Not only did they receive good publicity for these charitable ventures, they gained new lifetime customers among the soldiers who received the handouts.

As for health, their attitude seemed to be symbolized by the copy in one of their ads: “Not a Cough in a Carload.”

Even in the ‘20s, there were indications that smoking was harmful, but the tobacco men worked hard to suppress such information. In 1936, a medical researcher exhibiting a cancerous lung remarked that such a case was so rare it might never be seen again. It wasn’t until the early ‘50s, when the first generation of heavy smokers started dying off en masse, that scientists were able to show a definite relationship between smoking and respiratory disease, especially lung cancer.

The tobacco industry sold its composite of poisons for over 50 years with only the slightest interference from regulators. But eventually, as 77 million workdays were lost and 360,000 deaths were reported due to smoking-related illnesses each year, the problem became too big for any government to ignore. In 1964, after painstaking research, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health released a historic report linking smoking with the spiraling death rate from cancer and heart disease. Unlike previous efforts, this one spelled it all out, for anybody who wanted to see it—it was also excerpted in almost every newspaper and magazine in the country.

Don’t think the tobacco firms rolled over. Almost out of nowhere, two “scientific” articles appeared, one in True magazine and another in the National Enquirer, purporting to show that cigarette smoking wasn’t bad for you at all—that it was much safer, in fact, than walking across the street or trying to fix a faulty electrical appliance The articles were widely reprinted, and copies were mailed, under True magazine’s letterhead, to 500,000 consumers.

Who mailed them? An FTC investigation revealed that it was the Tobacco Institute. The author of the article, Stanley Frank, was no scientist: This prehistoric content writer had previously done some articles on sports and other lightweight topics.

Meanwhile, the nicotine cartel carried on a backchannel fight to prevent the FTC from banning cigarette advertising on television. This went on for a few years until a New York attorney named John F. Banzhaf III petitioned the Federal Communications Commission, claiming that if cigarette companies were going to be allowed to advertise on the air then anti-smoking groups should be given equal time to refute them, under the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine.

The industry deployed its biggest legal guns, but lost, right up to the Supreme Court. The airwaves were deluged with anti-smoking commercials. And sales plummeted.

At this point, the tobacco trust decided that it should take its advertising off the air, because then the prime tine anti-smoking spots would also cease. So it sent its lobbyists out to support such a ban. And it promised to not target the young.

The ban went into effect on January 2, 1971, in accord with the Public Health Smoking Act of 1970. Some anti-smoking people saw it as a victory.

But they were deluding themselves. The networks stopped showing the antismoking commercials in prime time, and cigarette sales shot up almost as quickly as they had gone down.

What’s more, the smoke purveyors saved hundreds of millions of dollars by not running TV advertising. And they diverted these funds into other types of marketing. For example, they came up with the Virginia Slims Tennis Tournament, which won the endorsement of some of the biggest names in sports, while also gaining prime-time TV coverage (with the name Virginia Slims prominently displayed in color around the court). They also started mailing out free samples, just as they had done years before, but the FTC put a halt to it.

We’ll stop there. People of a certain age will recall that restaurants, bars and theaters were so full of smoke that the eyes burned. Things are better now in that way thanks to smoking restrictions, but you can still see young people puffing away on the street, especially women.

It’s impossible to scare them. But I’ve seen enough friends and colleagues die of lung cancer and emphysema, usually wearing inhalers for their last several years.

In the end, the cigarette marketers are worse than their liquor counterparts. An adult can enjoy an occasional glass of alcohol or enhance a meal with a good wine; why, it’s said that a daily glass of wine can improve your coronary health.

I can’t remember seeing any such reports about cigarettes (at least not credible ones). So no credit is due the swine who market the evil weed.

 

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