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The Villification of Smokers


The federal government has launched what may become one of the most effective propaganda campaigns in American history.

Beginning September 2012, every cigarette manufacturer must display one of nine government-approved graphics on the top half, both front and back, of every cigarette pack. Among the warnings is a picture of a pair of healthy lungs next to a pair of cancerous lungs, with the notice: “Cigarettes cause fatal lung disease.” Another warning is equally definitive: “Cigarettes cause cancer,” with a picture of rotting gums and teeth. A person with an oxygen mask is the graphic for the text, “Cigarettes cause strokes and heart disease.” Other pictures show smoke coming from a tracheotomy hole and a dead body with autopsy stitches on his chest. Other warnings, with appropriate graphics are: “Smoking during pregnancy can harm your baby,” “Tobacco smoke can harm your children,” and “Tobacco smoke causes fatal lung disease in non-smokers.” One graphic shows a man in a T-shirt with the message, “I quit.” Cigarette manufacturers must include all nine warnings in rotation on their packs.

In addition, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also requires that one-fifth of every print ad must include the warnings.

The FDA directive is based upon Congressional action in 2009. The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which received strong bipartisan support, also prohibited cigarette manufacturers from sponsoring sports and cultural events. It further restricted tobacco companies from advertising their products on T-shirts and other clothing items.

The first cigarette ad was in the New York National Daily in May 1789. By the Civil War, cigarette ads were appearing regularly in newspapers. The tobacco industry’s own propaganda machine significantly increased full-page full-color ads in magazines during the 1930s and 1940s; a decade later, the industry was one of the first to recognize the influence of the emerging television medium. The ads not only extolled the advantages of smoking, they linked dozens of celebrities to their campaigns. Bob Hope pushed Chesterfields; Ronald Reagan wanted Americans to give Chesterfields as a Christmas gift. One popular ad even had Santa Claus enjoying a Lucky Strike. Marlboros became hugely successful with its Marlboro Man commercials that featured rugged cowboy individualism. To get the largely untapped female demographic into its sales net, cigarette companies went with what is now seen as sexist advertising. Lucky Strike wanted women to smoke its cigarettes “to keep a slender figure.” Misty cigarettes emphasized its smoke, like its women, was “slim and sassy.”

Camel cigarettes, which would eventually develop Joe Camel as its cartoon spokesman to counter the Marlboro Man, tied health, opinion leaders, and tobacco smoke. Its survey of more than 100,000 physicians of every specialty said Camels was their preferred brand.

However, by the mid-1960s, physicians had begun backing away not just from Camels but all cigarettes. A Surgeon’s General’s report in 1964 concluded there was a strong correlation between smoking and lung cancer. The following year, the Surgeon General required tobacco manufacturers to put onto every cigarette pack a warning, “Cigarettes may be hazardous to your health.”

In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled that the Fairness Doctrine required TV and radio stations to run anti-smoking ads at no cost. The message was clear to the financial departments?voluntarily eliminate cigarette advertising or lose five to ten minutes of sales time every broadcast day. In 1971, the FCC banned all cigarette advertising on radio and TV.

By 2003, cigarette advertising peaked at $15 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) To counter cigarette company advertising campaigns, government steadily raised cigarette taxes. State and local taxes accounted for $16.6 billion in 2008, according to the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution. Federal taxes, raised to $1.01 a pack in 2009, brought in about $8.5 billion. New York City residents pay the highest taxes per pack–$1.50 city tax, $4.35 state tax, $1.01 federal tax. The average combined tax nationwide is $5.51. Much of the money is used to develop anti-smoking campaigns.

About 443,000 deaths each year are primarily from the effects of cigarette smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new campaign aims to cut that by half. The FDA estimates there are about 46 million smokers.

It’s obvious that both tobacco manufacturer and government advertising campaigns have been effective. But there are several questions that need to be asked.

If the federal government demands health warnings on cigarette packs, why doesn’t it also demand similar warnings on other products that also carry known health risks, like liquor?

If there is so much evidence that cigarette smoke?with its tar, nicotine, and associated chemicals?poses such a high health risk, why doesn’t the federal government ban it, like it does numerous products known to be unsafe?

Does the federal government’s campaign violate the First Amendment protections of freedom of speech? This becomes an even more important question since the Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that with few exceptions corporations enjoy the same rights as individual citizens.

If there is evidence that tobacco smoke is unsafe and unhealthy, and the government levies excessive taxes, why did the federal government grant $194.4 million in agriculture subsidies in 2010 and about $1.1 billion in subsidies since 2000?

Finally, if the evidence is overwhelming that cigarette smoke is dangerous, and the federal government taxes every pack but doesn’t ban cigarettes, why has it been so adamant in refusing to decriminalize marijuana, which has significantly fewer health risks than what is in the average cigarette?

Walter Brasch has never smoked, but respects the rights of those who do.



Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues journalist. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an analysis of the history, economics, and politics of fracking, as well as its environmental and health effects.

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