WARNING: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.
This warning or one like it has been ubiquitous on the labels of cigarettes for many decades now. You'd think that the warning would prevent people from smoking, but countering the warning labels has been a multi-billion dollar tobacco industry whose profits depend on peddling a product that's known to be dangerous. For years, the tobacco companies did everything they could to deny its dangers and confuse the public while nearly 1/2 million people died from using their product each year.
I'd like to dedicate this article to my dear mother Jean Osber who passed away in 2008 (as I write this on Mother's Day 2015 I remember Mom). She died from emphysema which was brought on by years of smoking. Kent was her brand. She tried and failed for many years to quit using all kinds of tricks and the final years of her life were very uncomfortable. If there was ever any first-hand proof of how addictive cigarettes are and how damaging to your health they are, my mother was an unfortunate example. We miss you Mom!
Tobacco has a long history. All over the world for hundreds of years, tobacco has been grown and smoked in hand-rolled cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and chewed. Tobacco as an industry really took off with the invention of a cigarette making machine by James Bonsack in 1881. This machine could make 120,000 cigarettes per day. Bonsack and his colleagues started the American Tobacco Company, and by 1902 several other tobacco companies were competing this lucrative market including the Philip Morris company, which came out with the Marlboro brand.
During the first part of the 20th century, cigarette production went crazy. At first, cigarettes were marketed mostly to men, and cigarettes were given away free to service men fighting in WWI and WWII which was a huge windfall for the tobacco companies. By the 1940s women were also smoking and became customers for the cigarette companies. Advertisements for smoking and cigarettes were everywhere, depicting smoking as fashionable, cool, and even healthy. There was no concern about what cigarettes might be doing to the health of smokers.
Nicotine is one of the many chemicals found in tobacco. We now know that nicotine is one of the most addictive substances on earth. Smokers and users of chewing tobacco have an incredibly difficult time quitting because of the withdrawal symptoms from nicotine, which include headaches, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression, and incredible craving for more nicotine. Given what we now know, nicotine is the chemical that keeps smokers hooked, while the other chemicals are the ones that cause health problems over time.
Health Concerns Surface
In the 1930s both US and UK doctors started to observe an increase in rates of lung cancer, however the cause for the increase was unclear. No one had yet studied any relationship between smoking and lung cancer. Then in 1948 British physiologist Richard Doll published the first study that linked smoking to lung cancer. From there, multiple studies confirmed the link between smoking and cancer, and a highly influential article was published by Reader's Digest in 1952 called "Cancer by the Carton". The effect of the article in the highly popular magazine was enormous, and in the following year for the first time cigarette sales declined.
Big Tobacco Fights Back
The health concerns of cigarettes did not go unnoticed by the tobacco industry. Cigarette companies realized they had to band together to convince the public that smoking was not hazardous to health or at least that it wasn't clear. On December 14, 1953 executives from all of the major tobacco companies met at the Plaza Hotel in New York City to plot strategy with the PR firm Hill and Knowlton. Their first move was to publish a "Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers" which was published in 448 newspapers throughout the US. The statement was widely covered on television and radio and it is estimated that 43 million people worldwide received this message from the tobacco companies. In the statement, they claimed:
- That medical research of recent years indicates many possible causes of lung cancer.
- That there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is.
- That there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes.
- That statistics purporting to link cigarette smoking with the disease could apply with equal force to any one of many other aspects of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves is questioned by numerous scientists.
The industry announced in their message the creation of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) which they touted in their message to smokers. They would promise to spend millions in scientific research to uncover links between cigarette smoking and health. Over the coming decades, TIRC (later renamed Council for Tobacco Research) would continually announce the dollar figures of how much they'd spent on research as part of their PR campaign, but the results of their research were always to create doubt and confusion about the effects of smoking on health.
Another strategy the cigarette companies employed was to market low tar and filtered cigarettes. Research had determined that the cancer causing agent in cigarettes was tar, or the sticky residue that was left in the lungs after inhaling cigarette smoke. Further, adding filters to cigarettes would reduce the amount of smoke inhaled. The advertisements touted a healthier smoke, giving the impression that smokers could continue their habit while reducing their health risks. It turns out that studies showed smokers would just inhale more smoke from these supposedly healthier cigarettes. In any case sales and popularity of smoking went right back up once the PR campaign was in full gear.
1954 also brought the first of many lawsuits against the tobacco industry. Eva Cooper sued RJ Reynolds for the wrongful death of her husband who died of lung cancer after smoking Camel cigarettes for years. Cooper claimed that her husband relied on advertising that claimed that cigarettes were not harmful. This like many suits against the industry was unsuccessful in recovering any damages and fixing any blame on the cigarette companies.
1964 Surgeon General's Report and Warning Labels
A 1964 surgeon general's report cited a causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer, saying smokers are 9 to 10 times more likely to get lung cancer than the average non-smoker. In 1965 Congress passed the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act requiring warning labels on all packs of cigarettes.
The Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 required the following health warning, prescribed by Congress, to be placed on all cigarette packages sold in the United States:
CAUTION: CIGARETTE SMOKING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH.
This warning appeared on cigarette packs from Jan. 1, 1966, through Oct. 31, 1970.
In 1969, the Public Health Smoking Act of 1969 required all cigarette packaging contain the statement:
WARNING: THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT CIGARETTE SMOKING IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH.
In 1971 all broadcast advertising of cigarettes was banned.
The Marlboro Trick
Marlboro has historically been one of the most popular brands of cigarettes, using the image of The Marlboro Man, a rugged masculine cowboy, to mass market their brand. What is not often known about Marlboro is they were the first brand to make use of ammonia in the manufacture of cigarettes. Marlboro introduced ammonia into cigarettes in the 1960s, discovering almost by accident that ammonia helps deliver more nicotine thereby increasing the satisfaction for smokers. It also kept smokers more addicted. Marlboro was always the most popular brand, and other cigarette companies sought to reverse engineer Marlboros. When they discovered the secret was ammonia, they sought to follow suit to make their cigarettes more addictive, rather than telling the rest of the world. Tobacco executives in later years would claim that using ammonia as an additive was always to improve the flavor and enjoyment for smokers, not to make them more addictive.
The Roper Proposal
With a surgeon general's warning now on every box of cigarettes and all broadcast advertising banned, the tobacco industry needed to come up with its next move. Up until 1972 the industry had employed a "holding strategy" which was to create doubt about the health claims against smoking without actually denying them. The Tobacco Industry Research Council (TIRC) was now called the Tobacco Institute and had evolved into a research and lobbying arm of the tobacco industry. Its purpose was to appear to be doing scientific research on smoking, while in fact lobbying for big tobacco in the political arena and contradicting studies that showed smoking has hazardous to your health. In a 1972 memo to tobacco executives written by Frederick Panzer, vice president of public relations at the Tobacco Institute, Panzer stated that the "jig was up" on the holding strategy and suggested that the next move was to either blame smokers for their own health problems, or look for other possible causes like food additives that could explain health problems. This memo came to be known as the Roper Proposal. Big tobacco adopted the 2nd strategy, and they proceeded to commission a study that would show all that smokers' health problems could be caused by air pollution, viruses, food additives, occupational hazards, and stress. Once the study was completed, they would promote the results to Congress, the White House, medical schools and universities, and publish a book that could be promoted through television and radio talk shows. Panzer also stated that the material need only to be "seen" and not read by most people to change public opinion.
The strategy outlined in the Roper Proposal helped to counteract the public perception that smoking was hazardous to health. Big tobacco succeeded in keeping profits up and avoiding any type of costly litigation defeat that would surely turn the public against them. Nicotine chewing gum and patches began to be available in the early 1980s, and the tobacco companies used their influence to delay and limit their availability, as these would be aids in helping people quit smoking. Then realizing that their older customers were dying off and they'd need new customers, tobacco companies focused on teenagers. This is a quote from a Philip Morris executive in 1981:
"Today's teenager is tomorrow's potential regular customer, and the overwhelming majority of smokers first begin to smoke while still in their teens. The smoking patterns of teenagers are particularly important to Philip Morris."
In one of the most insidious moves, the RJ Reynolds company began in 1987 to market the Camel brand using the cartoon character Joe Camel. They were clearly aiming at the younger market. While broadcast advertising was banned, Joe Camel could be seen in magazines and on billboards everywhere and it was shown that children as young as age 6 could identify the Joe Camel character and associate it with Camel cigarettes. In a lawsuit brought by San Francisco attorney Janet Mangini, she alleged that the Joe Camel advertising campaign had increased sales of Camel cigarettes to minors from $6 million in 1988 to $476 million in 1992. RJ Reynolds of course denied they were marketing to minors and eventually the suit was settled.
By the 1990s, evidence was mounting in the scientific community that cigarette smoking was causing significant health problems. Many individual states began lawsuits against the big 4 tobacco companies (Philip Morris Inc., R. J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson and Lorillard) charging that the tobacco companies were directly responsible for millions in health care costs. Through much wrangling in court, in 1998 the government and the big 4 tobacco companies agreed on a settlement that would make the tobacco companies pay for health care costs that result because of smoking. In exchange, the tobacco companies would be protected against private lawsuits. In the final agreement, the tobacco companies agreed to pay $206 billion over 25 years that would be used for health care costs incurred by the states as well as helping to fund anti-smoking campaigns. They also agreed to curtail some of their most egregious practices like the Joe Camel campaign.
The punishment would seem to fit the deeds from the original master settlement, but by 2005 the tobacco companies were only liable for $10 billion over 5 years. Do you think there might have been some pressure from politicians whose campaigns are funded by tobacco companies? See Bush's gift to big tobacco.
Billions of cigarettes are bought and smoked every year and the profits for the tobacco companies has barely taken a hit from the master settlement. We do, however, live in a world now where cigarette broadcast advertising is banned, smoking is banned on airplanes and in most restaurants, and there are many more advanced programs to help smokers quit. There's no longer a question of whether cigarettes are addictive and cause health problems.