Tobacco and Censorship
“Enough Censorship! Freedom of speech—including the freedom to advertise—is a right we must preserve. A ban on cigarette advertising is not supported by the majority of Americans.”—Newspaper ad, January 1989, based on “a nationwide telephone poll of 1500 adults.” But do 1,500 represent “the majority of Americans”?
TOBACCO advertisers argue that their ads do not initiate people into smoking. They just determine the distribution of the business among the different brands. However, the present increase among women smokers makes that claim disputable. But there is another pernicious influence that springs from the power wielded by the tobacco advertisers.
In recent years U.S. tobacco companies have bought themselves a certain respectability by buying up food companies and dropping the word tobacco from their corporate names. Thus, the American Tobacco Company became American Brands; R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company recently became RJR/Nabisco; Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation became Brown and Williamson Industries. But what is one of the results of these changes? More advertising pressure. How so?
Even magazines that never feature tobacco ads have to think twice about publishing articles critical of smoking and tobacco products. True, tobacco advertising revenue may not be lost. But what about the other companies that now belong to the tobacco barons and advertise food or other products? And what about articles or statements that may cast smoking in a bad light? Here is the basis for a subtle, almost subliminal self-censorship.
An interesting case in point is the June 6, 1983, issue of Newsweek. Issues prior to and following that of June 6 carried from seven to ten pages of cigarette ads. But the June 6 Newsweek carried 4.3 pages on a controversial series entitled “Showdown on Smoking.” How many pages of cigarette ads did it carry in that issue? None. Author White states: “When the cigarette companies learned of plans for the story, they asked that their ads be removed. The magazine may have lost as much as $1 million in advertising for publishing that story.”
Advertising revenue is the lifeblood of magazines and newspapers. Evidence indicates that editors think very carefully about what material they will publish in criticism of the tobacco industry, if any. One health writer stated: “If I put smoking on a list of factors that cause heart disease, for example, my editor will either put it at the end of the list or drop it altogether.” As the saying goes, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Self-censorship has become the order of the day.
Interestingly, The Wall Street Journal reported that over a period of six years during which two black-oriented magazines were featuring tobacco ads, neither of them published any article dealing directly with smoking and health. Just a coincidence? Evidently, magazines that advertise tobacco products can hardly bite the hand that feeds them. So they refrain from exposing the dangers of smoking.
This review of the subject of tobacco, smoking, and advertising helps us to see that a lot is at stake. For the tobacco growers, their living is at stake. For the tobacco barons, the salesmen, their fat profits are at stake. For governments, their taxation revenue is at stake. And for the millions of smokers, their health and their lives are at stake.
If you are a smoker or you are contemplating starting smoking, the choice is yours. As the U.S. tobacco magnates like to remind you, it is your constitutional right to smoke. But remember, that means it is also your constitutional right to risk dying of lung or throat cancer, cardiovascular diseases, emphysema, Buerger’s disease (see box page 9), and a host of other deadly ailments. On the other hand, if you want to give up smoking, how can you do it? What is needed? Motivation!
[Picture on page 12]
U.S. surgeon general Koop has consistently warned against the dangers of tobacco use
Public Health Service photo