It is tempting to conclude from recent events that the tobacco industry’s longtime invincibility has come to an end. The Food and Drug Administration, after nearly a century of inaction, is moving to regulate nicotine as a drug. The Justice Department is investigating whether industry executives committed perjury when they denied that tobacco is addictive. Many states have filed suits to recover medical expenditures related to smoking, and the Clinton administration is attempting to restrict sales to minors by such measures as blocking access to vending machines.

Most striking of all, perhaps, has been the press’s vigorous coverage of the industry. For decades, tobacco was a taboo subject among journalists. Aside from The Reader’s Digest, an early and persistent critic of the industry, few magazines or newspapers were willing to touch it. Time and newsweek, rich in four-color ads touting Marlboro and Winston, avoided articles on the health hazards of smoking. The women’s magazines, while meticulously documenting every detail in the fight against breast cancer, would not print stories on the equally lethal threat from smoking; too much advertising revenue was at stake. And ever since the mid-1970s, when Philip Morris went to court to suppress a biting British-made documentary called “Death in the West: The Marlboro Story,” TV news producers had covered the tobacco story with great caution, if at all.

Now it’s hard to turn on the TV or open a magazine without finding a critical piece about the tobacco industry. “How Smokers Get Hooked,” read a recent headline in Time, one it would never have run in earlier years. Publications as diverse as Mother Jones and the Journal of the American Medical Association have recently devoted entire issues to the subject. And the network news magazines have engaged in their own tobacco war to get the inside story on the companies.

Yet for all the recent activity the current offensive against the industry could prove short-lived. For it rests on a very shaky foundation. Many of the recent stories about the industry can be traced to a single source: Jeffrey Wigand, the former head of research at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. (the makers of such brands as Kool, Pall Mall, and Lucky Strike). The first high-level executive to defect from the industry, Wigand has been able to provide journalists with rare firsthand knowledge of its inner workings. He was the subject of the much-publicized 60 Minutes segment on the industry’s awareness of the addictive properties of nicotine. Yet even Wigand’s abundant knowledge is quickly being exhausted. Moreover, as Marie Brenner shows in her recent profile of him in Vanity Fair, Wigand is a volatile person who has been subject to intense pressure from the industry, and it’s unclear how much longer he will be of value to reporters.

The press has further benefited from the efforts of a renegade paralegal named Merrell Williams. In 1988, Williams, an unemployed Ph.D., was hired by a Louisville law firm working for Brown & Williamson to photocopy company documents. Becoming outraged over what was in them, Williams decided to break the confidentiality agreement he had signed and surreptitiously copy several thousand pages of memos. Williams sent copies of the documents to Stanton Glantz, an anti-tobacco activist at the Medical School of the University of California at San Francisco, who eventually turned them over to the school’s library. B&W sued to have the documents suppressed, but the courts refused to comply, and the library—flooded with requests to see the papers—put them on the Internet. An invaluable cache, the documents range from memos on the effects of nicotine to a letter from Sylvester Stallone agreeing to use B&W cigarettes in five of his films in return for $500,000. The papers have served as the basis for numerous front-page stories in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, among other newspapers. A selection has just been published by the University of California Press under the title The Cigarette Papers.

Of course, Wigand and Williams are not the only sources of information about the tobacco industry. The many lawsuits that have been brought against the companies have produced a rich lode of data through the discovery process. Congressman Henry Waxman and FDA Commissioner David Kessler have also worked determinedly to rein in the companies. Nor should the part played by the President be overlooked. Bill Clinton is the first avowedly anti-smoking president, and without his encouragement many of the current actions against the companies would not be taking place. By contrast, Bob Dole has strong ties to the tobacco companies, and if he is elected in November, much of the pressure on the industry could subside. Even now, with all the challenges against them, the companies have shown remarkable resiliency. In late May, the industry won a major victory when a federal appeals court in New Orleans threw out a giant class action brought against it on behalf of millions of smokers. In response, Philip Morris’s stock gained $5.4 billion in value in little more than an hour of trading, testifying to Wall Street’s continuing high estimation of the industry’s profitability.


In short, the outcome of the current struggle over tobacco is very much in doubt. That makes it all the more urgent for us to analyze the behavior of the cigarette companies and figure out what to do about a product that kills an estimated 473,000 Americans a year. A close reading of two new books suggests a course of action that, I believe, could sharply bring down smoking rates while sidestepping a direct confrontation with this most powerful and resourceful of industries.


Ashes to Ashes, by Richard Kluger, will no doubt serve as the standard history of the tobacco industry for many years to come. As in his book Simple Justice, an equally voluminous account of the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision, Kluger provides a sweeping narrative full of outsized personalities and sudden twists of fortune, all recounted in an evocative, if at times florid, style. We learn, among many arresting anecdotes, that nicotine was named after Jean Nicot, France’s ambassador to Portugal in the mid-sixteenth century, who, on learning of tobacco’s supposed curative powers, sent seed samples from his garden in Lisbon to acquaintances at the royal court back home. The term “Stogies” is derived from Conestoga wagons, on whose long rides cigars were a favorite time killer. Thomas Edison—one of the nation’s first anti-tobacco activists—refused to employ anyone who smoked.

In fact, Edison had a lot of company. At the turn of the century, Kluger writes, employees were actively discouraged from smoking at such leading companies as Ford, Cadillac, Burroughs, and Marshall Field. This had to do less with health considerations (the confirmation of smoking’s toxic effects being decades off) than moral ones. Crusaders like Lucy Gaston, a spinster schoolteacher from Illinois, held that cigarettes led inexorably to a life of depravity, and the National Anti-Cigarette League, which she helped create, lobbied state legislatures to ban them. Three actually did, and a dozen more considered following suit. In 1910, The New York Times—sounding much like the Times of 1996—remarked that anything that could be done to allay “the general and indiscriminate use of tobacco in public places, hotels, restaurants, and railroad cars, will receive the approval of everybody whose approval is worth having.” As a result of such stigmatizing, cigarette sales remained flat; in 1910, annual per capita consumption came to just 138 cigarettes.

Over the next two decades, however, that figure would rise tenfold. The nation was gradually becoming hooked, and two events were largely responsible. One was the First World War. For young men on the front lines in Europe, Kluger writes, cigarettes offered “the perfect narcotic to numb the senses to the misery of the trenches, the witnessed horrors of mutilation, and the tedium of the endless interludes.” Returning home, the doughboys brought their new habit with them. Meanwhile, the women’s suffrage movement was opening up another large market. Whereas before smoking was seen as unladylike, cigarettes now became “the symbol of emancipation, the temporary substitute for the ballot,” as the Atlantic Monthly put it in 1916. As the nation charged ahead into the Jazz Age, cigarettes provided a neatly packaged, highly satisfying, and mildly stimulating drug for coping with the stresses and anxieties of daily life, and by 1925 they had become so popular that Mencken’s American Mercury was celebrating them as “the most democratic commodity in common use.”

Of course, the boom in sales was helped along by the industry itself, in the form of relentless advertising. From its earliest days, company executives learned the value of plowing back a huge portion of their profits into brand promotion. Ashes to Ashes offers a sort of hit parade of colorful ad campaigns, from Salem’s upbeat “Refreshing as Springtime Itself,” to Chesterfield’s laconic “They Satisfy,” to L & M’s spurious “Just What the Doctor Ordered.” Camel, introduced in 1913, would become the trade’s first great brand, not only because of its pronounced flavor but also because of its exotic trademark and marketing slogans like “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camel.” By the mid-1920s, Camel would control more than 40 percent of the US market, helping to ensure the dominance of R.J. Reynolds until the 1970s, when it would be challenged by Philip Morris and its world-beating Marlboro.

In 1925, Philip Morris held just one-half of one percent of the cigarette market; today, it is the largest private tobacco company in the world and the second most admired corporation in America (according to a Fortune magazine survey). How the company accomplished this takes up much of Kluger’s account. Many readers will find out more about this than they care to know. “In 1950,” goes a sample passage, “the company picked up a further 25 percent gain in sales, which passed $250 million for the first time, and could claim 11 percent of the market, still well behind but now within sight of No. 3 Liggett & Myers, with its 18 percent share.”


Still, Kluger offers many sharp insights into the reasons for Philip Morris’s success. In contrast to R.J. Reynolds, a parochial company tucked away in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Philip Morris was a cosmopolitan and imaginative enterprise that brashly set out to conquer the world from its headquarters on Park Avenue. Its chief strategist, Joseph Cullman III, was an aggressive and engaging Yale graduate whose social skills enabled him to rise in the corporate world at a time, the 1950s, when few other Jews could find a foothold. Cullman, in turn, opened up the company to people of talent, many of whom also happened to be Jewish. More diverse and tolerant than its competitors, Philip Morris was better able to perceive, and respond to, changing market tastes. It also appreciated the importance of shaping the political climate in which tobacco had to operate. Cullman’s successor, George Weissman, a liberal whose antiwar activities earned him a place on Nixon’s “Enemies List,” pushed Philip Morris into becoming “a highly visible patron of the arts, on the premise that such a role would help win it friends among opinion-shapers and counteract the unending bad news about smoking from the medical community.”

Philip Morris’s “strategic philanthropy,” as Kluger calls it, certainly paid off. The company sponsored a US tour of the La Scala opera company and a five-month tour of Vatican art treasures to help raise money for their restoration; the latter cost the company $7 million but won it “priceless” benefits, including “good will among the faithful and a papal blessing that tactfully omitted any suggestion of corporate mortal sins.” Philip Morris gave large sums to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Joffrey and Alvin Ailey dance troupes, the American Ballet Theatre, and fifty smaller companies, leading The Wall Street Journal to call it “a twentieth-century corporate Medici, the art world’s favorite company.”

To counter criticism that the tobacco companies were directing sales efforts at blacks, as they certainly were, Philip Morris contributed to the Congressional Black Caucus, the Whitney Young Foundation, the NAACP, and politicians such as Congressman Charles Rangel and Willie Brown, the speaker of the California Assembly. In 1986, Philip Morris, worried about possible restrictions on tobacco advertising, launched an essay contest in defense of the First Amendment. Needing a site for the awards ceremony, it approached the New York Public Library—another grantee—which readily obliged. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the company financed a traveling display of the document and sent out more than four million copies under the company’s letterhead, an effort that won it enormous publicity. The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, received $500,000 in tobacco money between 1987 and 1992; in that same period, the ACLU became a strong critic of efforts to ban tobacco advertising. Reading Kluger’s account, one can’t help feeling a rising sense of outrage at Big Tobacco’s ability to buy off so many organizations and use them to push its own toxic product.

Kluger himself was allowed to interview sixty past and present executives of the company—a remarkable display of openness for an industry obsessed with secrecy. Did Philip Morris’s gamble pay off? Certainly the tone of Ashes to Ashes is more modulated than that of many other books about the industry. Kluger sometimes seems so impressed by the shrewdness and energy of tobacco executives that he appears to be endorsing their activities. And he offers biting profiles of some of the industry’s nemeses, such as John Banzhaf, an anti-smoking crusader who appears in the book as arrogant and self-serving.

All in all, though, Kluger seems rigorously fair-minded. He takes on the various controversies surrounding the smoking issue and offers his considered judgments. In some cases, he finds against the industry’s critics. Secondhand smoke is an example. Environmental tobacco smoke, as it’s officially called, is estimated to cause perhaps a few thousand deaths a year from lung cancer and somewhat more than that from heart disease. While such a toll is hardly negligible, Kluger writes, “by stressing the risk of ETS exposure, the smoking control movement was effectively trivializing the risk from direct smoking, which was thirty to forty times greater. It was an incendiary, effective, and questionable tactic for those on the side of the angels.”

Kluger also contests the notion that smokers impose a heavy financial burden on society in the form of payments to treat smoking-related illnesses. Drawing on a variety of studies, he argues that the money spent caring for smoking victims is largely offset by the money they will not collect in Social Security, Medicare, and other benefits as a result of their premature deaths. Smokers, Kluger writes, cost society an average of 33 cents a pack—significantly less than the 52 cents a pack they shell out in federal and state taxes.

At the same time, Kluger is unsparing in criticizing the tobacco companies for their deceptiveness. Ever since the late 1950s, he writes, when the scientific community reached a “semi-official consensus” that smoking was the principal cause of lung cancer, the industry has sought to “dispute, distort, minimize, or ignore the unfolding evidence against it.” Thus, when the Surgeon General in 1964 issued his first report establishing beyond a doubt that cigarette smoking was a major health hazard, industry representatives immediately sought to dismiss it. One top executive, sounding “like an obstinate envoy from the Flat-Earth Society,” asserted, “We don’t accept the idea that there are harmful agents in tobacco.”

To reassure the public that they were anxiously seeking the truth about smoking, the cigarette companies set up their own research committees and staffed them with ostensibly independent scientists. The closer those scientists came to damaging findings, however, “the more likely the industry was to withdraw its backing,” Kluger writes. A researcher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, finding precancerous lesions in Syrian hamsters after a 100- week inhalation study, was told by a research supervisor that he would not receive a penny more in grants if he tried to disseminate his findings. When the researcher went ahead and scheduled a press conference at a scientific gathering in Atlantic City, an industry publicist—spreading rumors about the shoddiness of his work—succeeded in having the event canceled.

Like a prosecutor building his case, Kluger patiently compiles the evidence against the companies, and by the end he has established their guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. To have such a lucid and comprehensive record of the industry’s duplicity is certainly valuable. But the real question is what to do about it. And it is here that I found Ashes to Ashes wanting. As I gaspingly arrived at the book’s finish line, I expected to find an extended discussion of where we should go from here; instead, I found a lukewarm four pages sketching out a proposed deal between the industry and its antagonists. Under it, Congress would grant the industry a blanket exemption from all personal injury claims made by smokers. In return, the companies would agree to certain restrictions, including:

—granting oversight authority to the FDA for the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes;

—mandating tougher warning labels, including the statement that smokers on average live eight fewer years than nonsmokers;

—restricting cigarette ads to an all-print “tombstone” format and ending all promotional efforts, free samples, and vending machines;

—mounting a broad public-education program on the perils of smoking; and

—doubling the tax on each pack of cigarettes to help pay for all of the above.

Leaving aside the practical difficulties of implementing such a complex arrangement, I doubt that the companies would ever agree to it. For such a deal would no doubt cause a dramatic decline in the industry’s profits, and if Ashes to Ashes shows anything, it’s that the companies will fight to the bitter end to avoid any such outcome.


A more straightforward and workable approach is implicitly suggested in Kluger’s own reporting. It has to do with advertising—the industry’s “vital nutrient,” as he calls it. Reading Ashes to Ashes, I came away with a renewed appreciation for the power of cigarette advertising to shape public tastes—and to sustain industry sales in the face of so much negative publicity. As Kluger notes, cigarette brands vary little in taste and smell; packaging and image thus become paramount, a conclusion that is vividly demonstrated throughout his book. In the 1930s, for instance, Philip Morris—hoping to boost the sagging sales of the cigarette brand of the same name—was looking for a promotional gimmick. An executive hit on the idea of hiring a diminutive hotel pageboy with a distinctive voice and putting him on the radio to trill, “Call-l-l-l for-r-r-r Philip Maw-reeeees!” The phrase became an overnight sensation, and the brand’s sales took off as a result. In 1968, the company, seeking a market for its new Virginia Slims brand, ran an ad campaign featuring models who “were young, pert, strikingly slim, and tailored with flair,” and whose “sassy looks had an in-your-face boldness that proclaimed a free spirit and robust health.” Slims eventually gained a 3 percent market share—remarkable for a new product. Within half a dozen years of its launch, the percentage of teen-age women who smoked had doubled—a trend no doubt helped along by the ads.

For effectiveness, though, no campaign could quite match the one Philip Morris conceived for Marlboro. Introduced in the 1920s as a high-priced cigarette with an aristocratic image vaguely linked to the Duke of Marlborough, the brand appealed mainly to women, and by the 1950s sales had reached a plateau. Hoping to cash in on the growing market for filtered cigarettes, the company decided to redesign the brand and give it a new, more masculine image. Lasting eighteen months, the design process involved eight consulting firms, six testing laboratories, the Roper polling organization, twenty-five technicians at the company’s manufacturing plant in Richmond, and many executives in New York. Kluger recounts in detail how Philip Morris arrived at the elements of the new formula—the distinctive red-and-white pack (inspired by the Campbell’s Soup can); the slender, lower-case, serif-style typeface for the brand name; the selection of a cowboy as a symbol of masculinity (beating out a taxi driver); finding a male model with “marginally rugged, squinty-eyed good looks”; and the creation of a mythical “Marlboro Country” that was unpolluted and healthful-looking.

Sales increased, but only modestly. Something was missing, and in 1963 an executive finally supplied it: an excerpt from the score for the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven, by the Hollywood composer Elmer Bernstein. “The net effect,” Kluger writes, “was electrifying: a cigarette as larger-than-life hero, its virtues made manifest by thundering hoofbeats and soaring brass horns.” Sales jumped, and by the end of 1975 Marlboro had passed Winston as America’s best-selling cigarette—largely, it seems, because of a rousing film score. To keep the brand fresh, Philip Morris resorted to a host of clever marketing tactics—sponsoring sports car races, holding ski competitions, handing out free samples, arranging commercial tie-ins. In 1980, for instance, the company paid $42,000 for twenty-two exposures of the Marlboro logo in the movie Superman II, including scenes in which Lois Lane had a Marlboro pack on her desk and was shown “puffing merrily away.”

As Kluger notes, Lois Lane was a “role model” for teen-age girls, and the company’s eagerness to get a Marlboro into her hands reflected its strong interest in reaching young people. Over the years, he writes, Philip Morris has maintained the brand’s appeal to youths by “tirelessly projecting its cowboy imagery, a manifestation of independence from the programmed adult world.” Today, Marlboro is by far the most popular brand among smokers twenty-four years and younger, accounting for seven of every ten sales to them.

Philip Morris of course denies that it directs its sales campaigns at young people. The same is true of R.J. Reynolds, whose cartoon-like campaign for Joe Camel has been criticized for appealing to children. After Reynolds budgeted $75 million a year to promote Joe—a party animal with a phallus-like nose—Camel’s market share among young people went from 4.4 percent to 7.9 percent. One survey found that 90 percent of all six-yearolds knew that Joe Camel was connected with cigarettes. Nonetheless, the company continued to insist that, as one executive put it, “advertising is irrelevant to a young person’s decision to begin smoking.” This reflected the industry’s standard position that cigarette advertising seeks not to create new users but to convince current ones to switch brands.

Kluger derides this argument. Citing various studies, he notes that cigarette smokers are among the most stubbornly brand-loyal of all consumers. Only about 10 percent switch brands annually, and then it’s often for another brand by the same manufacturer. Taking the nearly $2 billion that the tobacco companies spend every year on advertising and promotion and dividing it by the total number of brand switchers works out to $345 per person—less than the average $347 each smoker spends on cigarettes a year. Clearly, these expenditures have another purpose—to recruit new smokers to replace those who die or quit. Surveys show that 90 percent of all smokers take up the habit by the age of twenty, and advertising helps to rope them in.

Still, many people find it hard to believe that advertising is really effective in persuading young people to smoke. That a young person would suddenly light up after seeing a picture of a cowboy smoking does seem simplistic, and, in fact, the process is far more subtle and indirect, as Philip Hilts explains in Smokescreen. A correspondent for The New York Times, Hilts has written many stories about the tobacco industry, not a few of them based on the Brown & Williamson documents that Merrell Williams copied. In Smokescreen, he draws further on these and other documents to provide a penetrating look behind the façade of Big Tobacco, particularly its efforts to get young people to smoke.

“When I first began to write about tobacco as a regular beat at the New York Times,” Hilts recalls, “I noticed something which puzzled me: the industry answers to routine questions were predictable on every subject, except children.” Normally full of easy confidence, tobacco executives would “bristle defensively, or else fall into silence,” whenever children were mentioned. As he pursued the story, Hilts found out why: “It is not possible to run a cigarette business without actively working the sidewalks where the children are.” As Hilts notes, adults rarely become addicted to cigarettes. Among those who begin smoking after twenty-one, more than 90 percent will soon drop it completely. “If it were true that the companies steer clear of children, as they say, the entire industry would collapse within a single generation,” Hilts writes.

The subject of getting children to smoke is so sensitive that, even in internal memos, the companies generally steer clear of it. But they were not always so discreet. Years ago, Hilts notes, the industry, after conducting research on smoking-related diseases and the effects of nicotine, investigated why people smoke in the first place, and how they can be convinced to keep doing so. Every company had agents in the field digging up facts, interviewing young people, and analyzing their behavior. And Hilts has found some revealing memos from the period. In one, written in 1973, Claude Teague, assistant chief of research and development at R.J. Reynolds, comments:

Realistically, if our company is to survive and prosper, over the long term we must get our share of the youth market; I believe it is unrealistic to expect that existing brands identified with an over-thirty “establishment” market can ever become the “in” products with the young group. Thus we need new brands designed to be particularly attractive to the young smoker, while ideally at the same time being appealing to all smokers…. Evidence is now available to indicate that the 14- to 18-year-old group is an increasing segment of the smoking population. RJR must soon establish a successful new brand in this market if our position in the industry is to be maintained over the long term.

Eventually, the company did so, “with a style and ferocity unmatched in tobacco marketing history,” Hilts writes. “It was Joe Camel.” As Hilts shows, the Camel campaign was explicitly aimed at what company memos refer to as YAS—“young adult smokers.” Reaching this group required a different type of marketing than that used for regular smokers, with a heavy emphasis on “gimmicks and gifts, tee shirts, cartoon figures, fancy cigarette lighters and knives.” Special efforts were made to reach stores patronized by young people. As a memo from a Florida division manager to his salesmen described it,

I need all of you to study the attached…list of monthly accounts in your [area] that are presently doing more than 100 Cartons Per Week, for purposes of denoting stores that are heavily frequented by young adult shoppers. These stores can be in close proximity to colleges, high schools or areas where there are a large number of young adults….

A sales representative interviewed by Hilts put it more colloquially: “If you got a high school on a block, and at the end of the block you got a Seven-11, that’s one YAS outlet. The criteria you would use was simple. The stores were the ones where the kids hang out.” The marketing campaign turned out to be one of the “most successful” ever, Hilts observes, “taking brands from virtually nothing to a major share of the youth market in only a few years.”

To explain the psychology involved in getting young people to smoke, Hilts cites a research effort mounted in the late 1970s by Imperial Tobacco of Canada (a sister company to Brown & Williamson). Project Sixteen, as it was called (for the age of those who were to be studied), was designed “to learn everything there was to learn about how smoking begins, how high school students feel about being smokers, and how they foresee their use of tobacco in the future.” A marketing firm paid teen-age smokers to come to hotels in downtown Toronto and nearby Peterborough for four observation sessions with hidden cameras. Based on the sessions, the firm wrote a report that describes the trajectory of a typical smoker’s career. Normally, experimenting with cigarettes begins around age seven or eight, with more serious efforts occurring at twelve or thirteen. Often, these efforts result in nausea and sometimes even vomiting among the kids, but “this perceived failure spurs them on to try again, and not fail,” the report states.

One reason is the “forbidden fruit” aspect of smoking. “Part of the thrill of adolescent smoking is the thrill of hiding it from parental wrath,” the report notes. “…The adolescent seeks to display his new urge for independence with a symbol, and cigarettes are such a symbol since they are associated with adulthood and at the same time the adults seek to deny them to the young.” By the age of sixteen or seventeen, many regret their use of cigarettes for health reasons and so try to quit. By then, however, they’re hooked on nicotine. “I started because it was the thing to do,” one teenage boy is quoted as saying, “but now it doesn’t matter…. Now it’s just a habit.”

Based on all this, the company concluded that it had to corral young smokers if it were to remain profitable. “If the last ten years have taught us anything,” the Imperial Tobacco report stated, “it is that the industry is dominated by the companies who respond most effectively to the needs of the younger smokers.”

Advertising helps to accomplish that. Drawing on the psychological research of the tobacco companies, Hilts writes that young people in their early and mid-teens are beginning to shape their self-image, a process requiring them to differentiate themselves from their parents and other adults. Cigarette advertising, he states, “exploits this natural need, offering a destructive manner of rebellion as an alternative to the more constructive varieties, such as outrageous fashion, music, and politics.” Adults, who have already formed a sense of themselves, do not have the same need; they are also more likely to be persuaded that cigarettes are dangerous. Consequently, they are much less susceptible to advertising’s allure.

In short, Hilts observes, the companies

must appeal to children successfully between 12 and 18, so that the habit may become an integral part of the image of themselves…. The temptation must be pressed just as the sense of self is forming, just as the child is facing the world at large for the first time, or it will not take hold.

The industry’s ability to manipulate images to turn young people into nicotine addicts is the ultimate “secret of the trade,” Hilts writes.

Of course, if smoking cigarettes is a form of teen-age rebellion, it often accompanies other allegedly rebellious activities Hilts mentions, instead of serving as an alternative to them, as he suggests. Here and elsewhere he seems to be psychologizing somewhat hastily. This may have to do with his book’s accelerated production schedule. Originally due to appear in the autumn, Smokescreen was rushed into print so as not to be scooped by Kluger’s book, and it shows. Nonetheless, most of Hilts’s observations are supported by the documents he cites. From them, he derives what he calls a “crucial” conclusion: “If sophisticated ads showing how cool smoking is were replaced with ads about rejection and disgusting behavior, and even more, replaced by ads showing how insecure smokers are, some substantial effect might be had.” Hilts is on to something here. If advertising is the instrument that enables the industry to re-create a market in each new generation, it seems the central point on which anti-smoking activists should concentrate.

One approach would be to ban cigarette advertising altogether. Western European countries have already done so, prohibiting the promotion of all tobacco products as part of the move toward economic union. A proposal to do the same in the United States—introduced in Congress in 1986 by the late Mike Synar—gained broad support, but the tobacco industry managed to sabotage it, largely by invoking the First Amendment. It was supported by both the ACLU and the noted lawyer Floyd Abrams. “It is at the heart of the First Amendment that we do not lightly strike out at speech to deal with social problems,” Kluger quotes Abrams as saying. “We try to persuade people…with more speech.”

To define cigarette advertising as speech worthy of First Amendment protection strikes me as questionable. That smoking every year kills more people than alcohol, heroin, cocaine, crack, and all other drugs combined would seem justification enough for society to take exceptional steps against it. Practically, though, the alliance of two such powerful forces as the tobacco companies and civil libertarians makes a ban on ads unlikely any time soon.

A different strategy would be to follow Floyd Abrams’s advice and fight harmful speech with more speech. There is convincing evidence that such an approach could work. One of the most fascinating episodes in the history of the tobacco industry occurred in the late 1960s, when the Federal Communications Commission moved to counter the extraordinary level of cigarette advertising on television. Invoking the fairness doctrine, the FCC decreed that for every four cigarette commercials put on the air, broadcasters would have to carry one public service announcement on the dangers of smoking. Soon the airwaves were full of hard-hitting messages produced by the American Cancer Society. One showed a thin, wan-looking man who spoke of his wife and kids and said, “I have lung cancer. Take some advice about smoking and losing from someone who’s been doing both for years. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke—quit. Don’t be a loser.”

The commercials had an “arresting effect” on the nation’s consciousness, Kluger reports. One third of the smokers who saw them said they had cut down or were thinking of doing so as a result; per capita consumption slipped from 210 cigarette packs in 1967 to under 200 in 1969. The experiment ended in 1970 when the tobacco companies—facing the prospect of a total TV ban and irritated by the anti-smoking ads—voluntarily agreed to stop advertising on television. In return, the FCC dropped the four-to-one rule, and the anti-smoking messages ceased. The money that the companies had previously spent on TV was diverted into print and billboard advertising, distributing free merchandise, and sponsoring sporting events. And per capita cigarette sales began to rise again, “leading to the suspicion that the antismoking commercials of the late 1960s…were a more effective damper than the TV ban,” Kluger observes.

Since then, anti-smoking commercials have rarely appeared on television, except in California and, to a lesser extent, Massachusetts. In 1988, voters in California passed Proposition 99, which called for raising the state’s cigarette tax by twenty-five cents a pack and using the proceeds to finance a broad anti-smoking campaign. With the $150 million so raised, California sponsored anti-cigarette advertising in eight languages, carried over TV and radio and in newspapers and billboards. Supervised by California’s Department of Health Services, the ads were even sharper than those aired in the late 1960s. One spot, described by Kluger, showed a simulated smoke-filled conference of tobacco officials. “We need more cigarette smokers,” one of them says. “Pure and simple. Every day 2,000 Americans stop smoking, and another 1,100 also quit. Actually, technically, they die. That means that this business needs 3,000 fresh, new volunteers every day.” The speaker adds with a laugh, “We’re not in this for our health.”

This drive has had remarkable results. Californians have quit smoking at more than twice the national rate; overall, the proportion of smokers in the state has dropped from 26.7 percent in 1988 to 15.5 percent in 1995, an all-time low. The rate of smoking among twelve- to seventeen-year-olds has not fallen as quickly, but, at nearly 11 percent, it is still roughly half that for the nation as a whole. Because of such impressive numbers, the tobacco companies have put pressure on Governor Pete Wilson, who has sought to divert a portion of the revenues from the cigarette tax away from anti-smoking ads and into state health programs designed to help the poor. The courts have blocked the move, but the money will remain in limbo until the issue is resolved; in the meantime California health experts expect smoking levels to rise as a result.

Whatever the outcome of that controversy, California’s experience, together with the FCC experiment of the late 1960s, shows the great potential of anti-smoking ads. Let the cigarette companies advertise (though not on TV); if their efforts are countered by an aggressive campaign of public-health messages, smoking rates nationwide could come tumbling down. Perhaps the same civil libertarians who have so vigorously defended the industry’s rights can be shamed into speaking out in support of such a program. More than any other single measure, a strong TV campaign could help turn Big Tobacco’s current vulnerability into a permanent condition.

This Issue

July 11, 1996