Anti-smoking TV ads a late, small win

Decades after they were banned from the airwaves, Big Tobacco companies are returning to prime-time television, but not by choice.
Decades after they were banned from the airwaves, Big Tobacco companies are returning to prime-time television, but not by choice. AP

Big Tobacco’s back, and it’s grudgingly ready for its closeup. Not since 1970, when Congress banned cigarette companies from advertising on television have small-screen audiences heard from cigarette companies — that is, until recently.

But this time, instead of trying to entice consumers to start smoking, the tobacco company-funded TV ads are directed at getting them to stop.

No, the industry didn’t just gulp down a vial of truth serum or get struck by an altruistic lightning bolt. Tobacco companies have long demonstrated they don’t much care if the products they peddle are the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. They are beholden only to shareholders, and their No. 1 mission is to keep Americans addicted.

That’s why in 1998, Washington state’s attorney general (and future governor) Christine Gregoire led a 46-state coalition to ink a $206 billion settlement with Big Tobacco. Much of the money went toward health insurance for the poor. The deal also banned cigarette billboards and cartoon ads targeting children — and created an underfunded mechanism to do national anti-tobacco advertising.

In 1999, the U.S. Justice Department filed its own lawsuit. Legal delays stretched over seven years, but finally, in 2006, a federal judge ruled tobacco companies “lied, misrepresented and deceived the American public.”

It took another 11 years of hem-hawing to implement the retribution, which came in the form of mandated “corrective statements.” They include: “Smoking kills on average, 1,200 Americans. Every Day.” And: “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.”

For the next year, they will air regularly during prime time on CBS, ABC and NBC Monday through Friday. The campaign will cost tycoons from the four largest American cigarette makers about $30 million, which translates to chump change in an industry that spends $8 billion a year in advertising.

The new round of messaging could be beneficial for Washington, where tobacco remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death, killing about 7,600 people every year. According to the state Department of Health, more people in Washington die from tobacco-related illness than from alcohol, drug use, car crashes, suicide, homicide, AIDS and fires, combined.

While smoking is on the decline among Washington adolescents, that good news is tempered by the advent of the electronic cigarette. Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of 10th graders using e-cigarettes more than quadrupled from 3.9 percent to 18 percent. The birth of nicotine-delivery habits among those who never smoked before is cause for concern.

One of the ads the tobacco companies will be running goes like this: “When you smoke, the nicotine actually changes the brain – that’s why quitting is so hard.” It’s straight from the files of “no kidding.”

Washington Post columnist George Will wasn’t off the mark last week when he wrote that “the anti-smoking message that government is now coercing from the tobacco companies —Trust us, we are untrustworthy — merely confirms common sense: Filling one’s lungs with smoke from a burning plant is dumb.”

But it’s still a revolutionary statement when you consider the source.

In the age of DVR, cable television and multiple premium channels, TV ads running on the three traditional networks don’t pack the wallop they once could have.

But getting Big Tobacco to admit any culpability in the wake of death and destruction they’ve left behind must be counted as some kind of victory.