As I look back on my years as president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids from my new vantage point at the American Association of Retired Persons, I ask myself what lessons I took away from the war against tobacco.
There were times when I thought we were going to get the upper hand and truly reduce youth smoking (the source of 90% of adult smoking). But there never was a moment when I felt we would smash the tobacco industry and declare ultimate victory. It is just too big, too wealthy and too tough to be totally vanquished any time soon. But defeating Big Tobacco isn't even the point. Preventing youth addiction and saving adult lives are the real goals.
Having come into my second career in public service from the marketing communications world, the one area that troubled me most about tobacco was the close alliance the industry has with advertising, PR and promotion agencies. And the most problematic of these are the ad agencies, which for decades have created alluring images and brand appeal.
Five years ago, when the federal government tried to impose restrictions on tobacco advertising and give the Food & Drug Administration authority in this area, the American Association of Advertising Agencies joined with the American Advertising Federation, the Association of National Advertisers and others to fight back. They claimed their industry would lose jobs, business opportunities and creative freedom. They also said they were acting on principle by opposing any regulatory or legislative restriction on "the truthful advertising of any legal product."
Behind this was their fear of the slippery slope: that restrictions on tobacco advertising could then lead to restrictions on alcoholic beverage products, legalized gambling or other industries that may not be socially acceptable.
We in the public health community argued that tobacco advertising and promotion -"truthful" or otherwise - was the only form of marketing designed to encourage people to consume a product that will definitely harm or kill when used as directed.
We cited studies in the Journal of Marketing, the Journal of the American Medical Association and other places showing that children are much more sensitive to cigarette advertising than adults, and that their decision to smoke is more influenced by ads than by peer pressure. One study indicated that more than one-third of smoking experimentation by kids is directly related to advertising and other marketing.
We also pointed out that tobacco industry documents showed that the cigarette companies concealed their knowledge of smoking-caused diseases, knew about the addictive nature of their products and marketed them to appeal to children. It's hard to imagine their ad agency partners were ignorant of all this.
And now that the arguments have been made and debated over and over, where are we?
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that the FDA does not have the power to regulate tobacco products because Congress never gave the agency this mandate. This ruling also ends possible new advertising and marketing restrictions.
Is the ad industry now in the clear? Not at all. Youth smoking rates are still very high. Although there have been some voluntary curbs by the tobacco companies, ads in magazines with high youth readership remain. And retail outlets look more and more like big promotions and displays for cigarettes.
Advertising Age and some advertising executives have said the answer to youth smoking is not restrictions on tobacco advertising but more anti-tobacco advertising. Now we have that, too. The states and a new national foundation, funded by the tobacco industry settlement with state attorneys general, as well as Philip Morris Cos., Brown & Williamson and other tobacco companies, are running campaigns against smoking.
But youth smoking still remains high, and the ad industry is deeply implicated. This remains a serious blight on advertising's image.
As long as the ad industry continues to represent tobacco clients, the pressure will continue for government action. Ad agencies and their employees who work for tobacco clients will continue to be viewed with cynicism by their peers, the public health community and the millions of Americans who care about this problem. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the 5-4 majority that struck down FDA regulation of tobacco, said, "By no means do we question the seriousness of the problem the FDA has sought to address. Tobacco use, particularly among children and adolescents, poses perhaps the single most significant threat to public health in the United States."
Why should the ad industry continue to stand by the tobacco companies as they balance on a tight rope between big profits and courtroom disaster? Now that the Supreme Court has ruled, and the ad community can say its principle has been validated, it is time to walk away from Big Tobacco. The ad industry no longer has to be perceived as the handmaiden of a tobacco industry that causes so much harm here and around the world.
Short of that, advertising people can create a set of voluntary guidelines with teeth that will restrict their work for tobacco clients so that adult smokers are reached (perhaps less effectively and efficiently) but kids are not. Previous voluntary marketing restrictions set by the tobacco companies have been ineffective, but the ad community could do much more.
But, better yet, why not walk away from tobacco advertising altogether? Just say no. The income isn't as great as it once was, there are no First Amendment rights at stake and it is definitely time.
Total victory over tobacco still isn't possible, but there is much that can be accomplished. There is common ground to b found. The ad industry and the public health community can make progress together, to the benefit of both and to the certain benefit of millions of American children.
Bill Novelli, Advertising Age. April 10, 2000.
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