Commentary

Finally, Some Tobacco Slogans We Can Live With

Warren Buffett is reported to have given his rationale for why he "liked" the cigarette business to John Gutfreund, then chairman and CEO of Salomon Brothers, in 1987: "It cost a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It's addictive. And there's a fantastic brand loyalty," as Bryan Burrough and John Helyar reported in Barbarians at the Gate.

A year later, I found myself acceding to my mother's dying request to smuggle the Carlton cigarettes she favored into the hospital where she was under treatment for lung cancer. Until her last couple of days, she'd head to the waiting room on her walker and light up.

Carlton advertised itself back then as having the lowest tar and nicotine (at least of all "king soft packs.") My mother had smoked them for at least the last dozen years of an addition she had acquired, as most do, as a teenager.

advertisement

advertisement

Last week, a federal appeals court judge unsealed a Justice Department request that Altria Group, which owns Philip Morris USA, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard and British American Tobacco, run stark "corrective statements" that it has drafted. I believe these statements represent the most truthful slogans ever written for the product. They include:

  • "We falsely marketed low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes to keep people smoking and sustain our profits. We knew that many smokers switch to low tar and light cigarettes rather than quitting because they believe low tar and lights are less harmful. They are NOT."
  • "A federal court is requiring tobacco companies to tell the truth about cigarette smoking. Here's the truth: ... Smoking kills 1,200 Americans. Every day."
  • "We told Congress under oath that we believed nicotine is not addictive. We told you that smoking is not an addiction and all it takes to quit is willpower. Here's the truth: Smoking is very addictive. And it's not easy to quit."
  • "The surgeon general has concluded" that "children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear problems and more severe asthma."

Philip Morris claims that the proposals "go beyond factual and scientific information." Murray Garnick, its associate general counsel, said in a statement that although Altria agrees with the "overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, and other serious diseases in smokers and is addictive," the government's proposal "is unprecedented in our legal system and would violate basic constitutional and statutory standards."

The tobacco companies will be proposing their own versions of the corrective statement for Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to consider, according to the New York Times.

About 20 years ago I was doing some research for a column about patent medicines. I remember how amazed I was that not only were our forebears so gullible that they believed the outrageous claims of the purveyors of these elixirs but I also wondered why it had taken so long for the government to crack down on them. The 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act that established what later became the Food and Drug Administration was 25 years in the making. It was largely spurred by an expose of the patent medicine industry in magazines such as The Ladies' Home Journal and Collier's.

But a large part of the reason that patent medicines survived as long as they did had to do with the media's complicity. Newspapers were collectively raking in about $40 million a year in patent medicine advertising -- a huge sum at the turn of the 20th century. Whenever a bill to curtail patent medicines was introduced in any legislative body, the manufacturers would wire newspaper publishers to get on their high horses. Editorials defending the assault on the First Amendment, and the right of advertisers to promote legal products, flew fast and furious.

At the time I wrote the piece, I was struggling to kick a nicotine addiction I'd had since I was 16. But it's only in recent years that I've come to fully appreciate that, in my lifetime, we have allowed marketers to get away with far more brazen lies and cunning deceptions ("More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette") than the guys selling snake oil off the back of a covered wagon -- or even the august Lydia E. Pinkham herself -- could ever have dreamed of.

Tobacco continues to kill thousands of people worldwide every day. "While sales are declining in developed countries, they are booming in emerging markets," according to an analysis of the industry on the stock-picking site Seeking Alpha. "Tobacco makers are aggressively marketing in those markets in order to compensate for the declining sales in rich countries."

And why, exactly are sales declining in counties such as ours? It's "due to unprecedented bans on cigarette usage in public places, restrictions on advertising, extremely high taxes, health warnings, limitations on retail display and other factors."

I, for one, don't believe for a minute that "self-policing" is one of those "other factors."

Next story loading loading..