Tobacco companies are placing ads in print and on television again, but this time it’s not to sell their health-destructive products. Much to the companies’ displeasure, the federal government is forcing them to place stark advertisements warning of the dangers of smoking.
The first ad ran in papers on Sunday, November 26, 2017. The following day, November 27, the ads started appearing on television.
The ads are the result of a 2006 judicial ruling in a lawsuit filed by the federal government which found Big Tobacco deliberately misled the public about the dangers of smoking. You better believe cigarette makers fought the ruling with a vengeance.
In case you haven’t seen the newspaper ads yet, the messages – black text on a blank page – warn that cigarettes kill 1,200 Americans each day.
They stand in stark contrast to the original tobacco ads, which showed cool, attractive men and women having a grand time while puffing on a cancer stick. Some of the oldest ads even contained artwork featuring doctors recommending one brand or another.
The television ads feature a discarnate voice that is either computer-generated or manipulated, first stating the following:
“A federal court has ordered Altria, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard and Philip Morris USA to make this statement about the health effects of smoking.”
From there, it’s all bad news for the handful of people who still don’t know that smoking is deadly.
“Smoking causes heart disease, emphysema, acute myeloid leukemia and cancer of the mouth, esophagus, larynx, lung, stomach, kidney, bladder and pancreas.”
There are 5 ads, total. The others warn about the dangers of secondhand smoke and state that low-tar and light cigarettes are just as deadly as regular ones.
Altria, R.J. Reynolds, Lorillard, and Philip Morris are also forced to admit the obvious in the ads:
“Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.”
Big Tobacco is being forced to tell the truth, but it’s a little late for that. And, some experts say, the new ads aren’t likely to make much of an impact on Americans who still smoke today. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, about 15 out of every 100 adults aged 18 years or older were still clinging to the nasty habit.
Nora Rifon, a professor of consumer psychology at Michigan State University said:
“If the intention was for these ads to have some dampening effect on smoking initiation, or just continuing to smoke, I would say it won’t work.”
The ads might not convince people to stop smoking, but it’s high time these companies face some sort of public shaming, isn’t it? Judge Gladys Kessler is to thank for the tobacco companies’ reckoning. The U.S. District judge ruled in 2006 that the companies had conspired to cover up the risks of smoking.
In her ruling, she said that the cigarette industry “profits from selling a highly addictive product which causes diseases that lead to a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system.”
It took this long to finalize the ads because the tobacco companies appealed the wording repeatedly.
In a joint statement, the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, National African American Tobacco Prevention Network and the Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund said:
“The ads will finally run after 11 years of appeals by the tobacco companies aimed at delaying and weakening them.”
Cliff Douglas, of the American Cancer Society, said:
“It’s a pretty significant moment. This is the first time they have had to ‘fess up and tell the whole truth.”
Matthew Myers, president of The Campaign for Tobacco, said that the ads, which the companies refer to as “corrective statements,” may be old news to most people, but there are nuggets of information in them that some might find surprising.
“Very few people know that the court found that the tobacco industry intentionally manipulates cigarettes to make them more addictive.”
In their statement, the health groups added:
“Despite their claims to the contrary, the tobacco companies have not changed. Their continuing aversion to the truth is clear from how hard they fought the corrective statements, going so far as to seek removal of the phrase ‘here is the truth.”
But the tobacco companies didn’t walk away from the litigation empty-handed. They won’t be forced to admit that they deliberately lied and covered up the truth in their advertising and promotional campaigns. Nor will they have to include graphic images of what smoking does to people.
Big Tobacco may have “gotten away with murder” in one other very important sense.
In 2006, social media was very limited, smartphones hadn’t truly hit the market yet, and few people subscribed to Netflix. The media landscape is totally different now, and the tobacco companies don’t have to place corrective ads in places where young people, the most vulnerable population, are likely to see them: online and in streaming TV services.
Robin Koval, CEO and president of Truth Initiative, a nonprofit established as part of a separate, 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between major U.S. tobacco companies and 46 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, said:
“The world has completely changed. Not as much will be seen by young people, who spend less and less of their time watching prime-time television. That is an opportunity lost.”
 NBC News