"Smoking is highly addictive." That sentence may flash across your television screen soon, as part of a series of tobacco advertisements that are more blunt than ever: As early as next month, cigarette manufacturers will start running straightforward ads about the dangers of smoking on major television networks, in newspapers, and on little pamphlets tucked inside the cellophane wrappers on cigarette packs.
"They are not doing this because they want to," says Robin Koval, president and CEO of the Truth Initiative, a nonprofit organization that aims to put a stop to smoking. "They are doing this because the court is mandating that they do it." The ads are the result of a 1999 lawsuit filed against tobacco giants including Philip Morris and American Tobacco by the Department of Justice, which called out the companies for lying to the public about the health risks of smoking.
In 2006, US District Judge Gladys Kessler cited overwhelming evidence that the tobacco industry was responsible for "a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public." Still, they only reached a resolution now, 11 years later. "It's an example of how the tobacco industry kind of wins even when they lose," Koval says. "Their strategy is delay, delay, delay."
The televised and print ads will come from Altria Group Inc. and British American Tobacco PLC, which now own all of the companies named in the 1999 lawsuit. "We are complying with the court's order to run these communications," Steven Callahan, a spokesperson for Altria, said in an email. "I'm not going to speculate on their impact."
The ads will run in primetime slots on network television and in the front section of the Sunday editions of metro newspapers. Each will feature one of five court-mandated corrective statements about the dangers of tobacco. "More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol, combined," one will read. "Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans every day," says another. Another: "Altria, RJ Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Philip Morris USA intentionally designed cigarettes to make them more addictive." Kessler ruled in 2012 that each statement should start with "Here is the truth," but the tobacco companies fought that, and the intro will not appear in the ads, Koval says.
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Making the facts more public seems like a huge step in the right direction, but many people may never see them. "What has happened in the media landscape in 11 years is truly transformational," Koval says. While the corrective statements will be seen, they won't be in the places where many young people—and a huge portion of the smoking population—consume media: online and on social channels.
"The good news for the tobacco companies is they'll avoid a lot of their younger audience," John Boiler, co-founder of 72andSunny, an agency that does charity work for Truth Initiative, told the Wall Street Journal. "I think they're getting off kind of lightly."
But Altria still asserts that its practices revolve around honesty and the health of their consumers, even though its success is built on nicotine. "We remain committed to aligning our business practices with society's expectations of a responsible company," Murray Garnick, Altria's executive vice president and general counsel, said in a press release. "This includes communicating openly about the health effects of our products, continuing to support cessation efforts, helping reduce underage tobacco use and developing potentially reduced-risk products."
Note that their efforts don't include ending sales of tobacco products, and remember: They're now discussing the health effects because a court ruling is forcing them to do so, not because they're focused on your health. (If the latter were true, Philip Morris would have kept to its promise to "stop business tomorrow" if the company "had any thought or knowledge that in any way we were selling a product harmful to consumers," as stated in 1954 by then-vice president George Weissman.)
The news coincides with another announcement that Philip Morris International, which is owned by Altria and manufactures Marlboro products, is pledging $80 million annually for the next 12 years to its new venture, the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World. The World Health Organization countered that "there are a number of clear conflicts of interest involved with a tobacco company funding a purported health foundation, particularly if it promotes sale of tobacco and other products found in that company's brand portfolio." (Altria also makes e-cigarettes.) It's an empty promise coming from a company that thrives on cigarette sales and the addictive nature of nicotine.
"We look with great skepticism on [this] statement," Koval says. "If they really wanted a smoke-free world, what they should do, and they could do this tomorrow, is stop selling products that kill people." Not to mention stop fighting every effort at tobacco control across the globe that's proven to reduce consumption, including graphic warnings on packaging and higher taxes on tobacco products.
The corrective statements from Altria and BAT will start running in newspapers as early as November 26. Thirty- to 45-second primetime TV ads—which will consist of black-and-white text—will run five days a week for one year, mostly on ABC, CBS, and NBC.
"I think it's really important to underscore that while we're glad to see the case settled, it's gone on for way too long," Koval adds. "This should in no way, shape, or form be interpreted as the tobacco companies being the good guys."
Correction 10/4/17: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the name of the Truth Initiative's president. We regret the error.
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