This very night I am going to leave off tobacco! Surely there must be some other world in which this unconquerable purpose shall be realized.
— Charles Lamb, Letter to Thomas Manning
It was a tough week for the cigarette and all but the most heartless would fail to feel the pain that has now been inflicted upon it. And in feeling their pain they’d be joined by Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and three of his colleagues who have received huge campaign contributions from the cigarettes’ makers.
Mr. McConnell has received more than $400,000. North Carolina’s Richard Burr, who bravely led opponents of the recently passed tobacco legislation into battle, has received $359,100 and two other members of the opposition were recipients of over $100,000 from the tobacco industry and friends. None of them was, of course, influenced to protect the cigarette because of the gifts. But I digress. This column is about the poor cigarette and briefly traces its fall from glory. Although not yet the recipient of the death sentence it has handed out to so many of its followers, the cigarette has been dealt a mighty blow.
Under legislation just passed by Congress and sent to the president, the care and feeding of the cigarette has been turned over to the probably unfriendly Food and Drug Administration. How far the poor cigarette has fallen in only 24 years! 1985 seems like yesterday. Here’s what led up to that year.
On November 11, 1981, Walter Jacobson, a commentator for WBBM-TV in Chicago broadcast a report about Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation. In his extensive report he said that B&W had developed an advertising campaign to lure the young into smoking by depicting smoking as “A declaration of independence and striving for Self-identity” Mr. Jacobson said B&W’s aim was to “present the cigarette as an illicit pleasure. . . A basic symbol of the growing-up, maturing process.” B&W sued for slander and a jury, outraged at the suggestion an esteemed corporation would do anything as despicable as Mr. Jacobson had reported, awarded B&W a cool $5.05 million.
In 1988 Philip Morris decided it had taken enough from the anti-cigarette crowd. It ran an ad campaign to show that friends of the cigarette were a group to be contended with. In an ad using big black letters of the sort used to herald the end of world War II, it said: “$1 trillion is too much financial power to ignore.” (In 1985 a trillion dollars was a lot of money.) Smokers are, said the ad, one of the most economically powerful groups in the U.S. and help fuel the engine of the largest economy on the globe. Commenting on the ad campaign, Guy L. Smith 4th, then the vice-president for corporate affairs, said “Let the politicians take note. You’re not just talking special-interest group. You’re talking swing vote.”
Other P-M ads were more playful. An ad that followed the banning of smoking inside airplanes, shows a smoker sitting on the wing of an airplane contentedly smoking. Another portrayed a smoker sitting on a desk outside the 8th floor of an office building that had banned smoking happily puffing away. According to James Morgan, senior vice president of marketing for Philip Morris, “the ads establish a connection with the consumers that is warm, humorous and whimsical.” That plus “deadly” is the perfect description of the relationship many of us had with the cigarette. Today that has changed.
As soon as the president signs the Bill, the cigarette will be placed under the FDA’s jurisdiction. The FDA will have the power to regulate the cigarette’s content. Colorful ads and store displays will be replaced by sober black and white only text. The cigarette will not be permitted to brag within 1,000 feet of schools and playgrounds. In recent years the cigarette has improved itself by adding variety of flavors such as Mandarin Mint, Mocha Taboo, Margarita Mixer and the like in order to appeal to the younger set that while seeking sophistication through smoking nonetheless continue to enjoy flavors of that remind them of the halcyon days of their youth.
The cigarette may be discouraged but does not yet have to concede defeat. Already groups are lining up to attack the new law on the ground that it impinges on the cigarette’s free speech rights. Daniel Jaffe, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers and a friend of the First Amendment as well as the cigarette said: “Anybody looking at this in a fair way would say the effort here is not just to protect kids, which is a substantial interest of the country, but to make it virtually impossible to communicate with anybody. We think this creates very serious problems for the First Amendment.” I’ve good news for Mr. Jaffe. The First Amendment will overcome its problems. The cigarette and its friends will almost certainly figure out ways to continue to communicate with young smokers. They always have.