The Multinational Monitor

July/August 1987 - VOLUME 8 - NUMBERS 7 & 8

T H E   T O B A C C O   T R A P

The Smoke Screen

Tobacco and the Press:
An Unhealthy Alliance

by Morton Mintz

The six largest U.S. cigarette manufacturers spend about $2.6 billion a year on advertising. That's about $9 for every man, woman and child in the country.

Their combined advertising expenditures account for 1 percent of all newspaper ads and 9 percent of all magazine ads in the country. But, charge antismoking advocates, the money goes much farther than just encouraging smoking and countering the small plain box containing the Surgeon General's warning. They say it also ensures that the carrier does not write about smoking and health before it thinks about the ad money that could conceivably be lost.

Realizing the pwer of advertising, the American Medical Association passed a resolution in December 1985 urging legislation to "ban the advertising of tobacco products."

In A Two-Faced Press?, Tom Goldstein, an acting professor at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California, Berkeley, looks at tobacco and the press.

"Should any curbs, legal or voluntary, be placed on the advertising of lawful products?" Goldstein asks. "Does doing so interfere with the freedom of the press? Is public skepticism of the press fostered by the apparent conflict of newspapers accepting advertisements for a product that editorials attack? Can we have a press that behaves as a good citizen and yet sustains itself commercially?"

To examine these issues, Goldstein interviewed publishers and editors and sent questionnaires to 165 publishers and advertising managers of newspapers and magazines.

Goldstein's most valuable contribution is his demolition of a notion solemnly advanced by the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the Magazine Publishers Association: that banning ads violates the first amendment's guarantee of free speech; "if it is legal to sell a product, it should be legal to advertise it."

Various editorials have elaborated on the notion that a publisher who takes cigarette ads does so out of dedication to principle, not profits. If publishers refused cigarette ads, the theory goes, they would start to slide down a "slippery slope" at the end of which they would have to refuse ads for a wide variety of other products. "Could we justify refusing cigarette ads but publishing liquor ads, as does the New Yorker?" asked the Columbia Journalism Review. What of cholesterol-rich icecream? What of books and plays expressing repugnant ideas?

Such talk blurs a crucial distinction: cigarettes are harmful when used as intended. Use of cigarettes in any quantity may be hazardous; use of alcohol in moderation is not.

Cigarettes are indeed a "legal product," but why? Professor Kenneth E. Warner of the University of Michigan School of Public Health et al. answer the question in an article in the fall 1986 Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.

The historical accident that tobacco came into wide use long before its hazards were understood is only part of the explanation. More pertinent is political clout. Warner writes: "Tobacco products are legal today solely because they have been specifically exempted, by legislation or administrative decision, from the regulatory authority of numerous federal agencies mandated to protect the public from hazardous products." For example, Congress specifically barred the Consumer Product Safety Commission from regulating cigarettes, although they "are responsible for more deaths than the combination of all of the other products that have come under the Commission's purview." The Food and Drug Administration will not evaluate tobacco products for safety on the ground that they are neither food nor medicine.

Goldstein throws sand on the slippery slope: "This reasoning by absurd analogy belittles the role of journalists. When it comes to advertising, they are capable of making reasonable and intelligent judgments, just as they are able to decide what stories to run each day and where to play them."

"The almost universal response of publishers to my questionnaire was that they accept advertising for all lawful products," Goldstein reports. On the basis of his abundant evidence, however, this response suggests memory losses.

Many papers decline ads as self-appointed guardians of public morals. What "commercial speech" is constitutionally protected, is often up to the editor, not the courts.

The Los Angeles Times declines ads "for `streaking' services." In Cambridge, the Harvard Crimson refused an ad from Playboy "for recruiting sessions." In Phoenix, the Republic and Gazette never have taken ads for X-rated movies. In Cleveland, the Plain Dealer rejects ads for "escort services" and fortune tellers.

Other papers forego revenues to protect us from ...well, what? In San Diego, the Union and Evening Tribune do not accept ads from Planned Parenthood. In Nebraska, the Columbus Telegram refuses ads for "home sewing."

There are some papers that have cut off cigarette advertising. In Salina, Kansas, the Journal "discontinued all national cigarette advertising in 1984. `It was a little hard to justify in my mind that we editorialize in opposition to smoking and then turn around and accept the revenue that was generated from cigarette advertising,' said Fred Vandergrift, the paper's publisher."

No such ethic enforces "Advertising Standards of Acceptability in The Dallas Morning News," a five-page pamphlet which says that advertising "likely to cause injury to the health" of the reader is unacceptable. This standard, the paper's assistant retail ad manager told Goldstein, "was not broad enough to include cigarette advertising."

The big six tobacco companies, all conglomerates, wield much more power when they throw in the advertising budgets of their non-tobacco product lines. Four of them "ranked among the top ten magazine advertisers, with R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris ranking first and second, respectively. The same four conglomerates also ranked among the top ten newspaper advertisers, with R.J. Reynolds again topping the list." Still more power over advertising was gained by Reynolds in 1983, when it acquired Nabisco, and by Philip Morris, when it acquired General Foods. Loew's Corporation, parent of cigarette maker Lorillard, recently took control of a big block of CBS stock.

The implications are unpleasant. "Editors and owners might fear that a news or editorial discussion of smoking would be perceived as an attack on their most important sponsors," the Warner article warns. And refusing ads for the product said by the respectable scientific community to cause some 350,000 premature deaths each year, and to be the leading cause of avoidable death and disease, may risk puni- II tivel} diminished ad revenues, not merely for cigarettes, but also for numerous other con- ' sumer products.

But Goldstein builds on a flawed assumption, which M.J. Rossant, Director of the Twentieth Century Fund makes explicit: it is "the prevailing practice of the responsible press to give full news coverage to products that may be harmful to consumers and editorially warn against the dangers of such products." More explicitly, Michael Gartner, then editor of the Courier Journal in Louisville and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, says that the "public has been informed about the perils of smoking; it has, in large part, decided to keep smoking. The press did its job, the public did its.?

Because the press "did its job," Gartner says, the public was "informed." If he was implying that the public was fully informed, he was blowing smoke. Goldstein himself calls such suggestions into question, citing for example, a 2,500 word Washington Post article in December 1985 in which reporter Susan Okie amply "documented 'a widespread perception among writers, editors, and antismoking organizations that cigarette advertising is influencing the news Americans read about smoking.' Okie found that the health effects of smoking are especially 'played down in many women's magazines that accept cigarette advertising."

There are disturbing episodes involving The New Republic, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated and numerous other publications.

In 1985, for example, a New Republic editor assigned an article on the tobacco industry, but it was killed at the last minute by publisher Martin Peretz. The writer said Peretz told him that his attack on the industry was "an expensive crusade that I am willing to forego." Later, the Washington Monthly, which has the true grit to refuse cigarette ads despite its great need for ad revenues, printed the article. In an article in the Washington Monthly in April 1984, Ken Cummins said that Cosmopolitan and Psychology Today, each the vehicle for millions of dollars in cigarette ads annually, "have refused rto run an advertisement for a national chain of antismoking clinics. ABC's 20/20 recently aired a tape-recorded conversation in which an ad executive from Cosmopolitan said, "We can't accept it. We get 200 pages of cigarette advertising [a year]... Am I going to jeopardise $5 to $10 million worth of business?" In 1983, Newsweek carried a 16-page insert, "Personal Health Care," which the American Medical Association prepared, aided by a Newsweek grant. The insert was loaded with advice on how to preserve and improve one's health, but contained not a word on the benefits of not smoking. "AMA officials say - not for attribution - that the magazine insisted on this," Cummings wrote. "H. Duncan McMillan, director of special projects for Newsweek, stated that [that] there is just not enough space sometimes to do justice to all the subjects involved."

Warner et al. blow away any thought of a fully informed public with this: "Polls suggest that large proportions of the U.S. population do not understand that smoking reduces one's life expectancy; large proportions do not identify smoking as the principle cause of lung cancer... and do not perceive lung cancer to be a fatal disease; large proportions do not identify smoking as a cause of heart attacks... Recent developments associated with smoking and health remain largely unknown to the general public.

The image that smoking really is not all that important is strongly suggested in a recent poll in which the public ranked 'don't smoke' as the tenth most important health and safety priority, behind such measures as installing smoke detectors, despite the fact that cigarettes kill sixty times as many people as do home fires and the most important cause of home fires is cigarettes."

Whether the ad ban proposed by the AMA, if legislated by Congress, would be found by the Supreme Court to be constitutional is, of course, conjectural. Goldstein's plea, however, is not for a ban, but for rigorous selfdenial: all publishers should be "socially responsible" and sacrifice cigarette-ad revenues. A few magazines have in fact done so, including Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping, The New Yorker, Seventeen, and Washington Monthly. The pitifully few newspapers on the honor roll include The Daily Record in Morristown, New Jersey.

Goldstein may be disappointed if he seriously expects large numbers of magazines and newspapers, wealthy or struggling, to sign on. Consider The New York Times and The Boston Globe, each a more likely pacesetter than a paper of 30,000 circulation in Salina, Kansas.

The Times, Goldstein reports, lived without cigarette ad revenues in the early 1970s. Since then, however, it "has energetically solicited tobacco advertisers in an important trade publication, the U.S. Tobacco and Candy Journal. The salutation of one recent advertisement was: `Lifestyles are made, not born."' And "one of the first things the New York Times Company did after purchasing the Sarasota Herald-Tribune late in 1982 was to reverse that paper's long-standing policy of refusing cigarette advertising."

The Globe banned cigarette ads in May 1969 because "accumulated medical evidence has indicated that cigarette smoking is hazardous to health." Five years later, the Globe "decided there is a larger question here, one of access, a responsibility to its public to allow the varying voices of the community appropriate access to its advertising space." Wealthy, i.e., is better than healthy.

There are numerous possible alternatives to either an ad ban or appeals to social responsibility, including a proposal by Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif. and Senator Bill Bradley, DN.J., to end the tax deductibility of tobacco ad and promotion outlays. Warner lists another interesting possibility: "Earmark a few pennies of the federal cigarette excise tax to pay for a media anti-tobacco campaign... The tax has the desirable feature of yielding diminishing revenues as consumption and hence need for anti-tobacco publicity falls."

Morton Mintz, a Washington Post reporter and author, adapted the following article from a review he wrote for Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

Table of Contents