Myth Communication: Selling a Smoke-Free Society

Speech at Reason Weekend

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The question is whether that possibility is enough to justify censorship. In this connection, it's important not to lose sight of the distinction between persuasion and coercion. If tobacco advertising is in fact a "bad influence" on some teenagers, that is something to counter not with force but with information, exhortation, and satire. The rush to ban tobacco advertising because maybe it encourages some teenagers in some situations to take up smoking suggests a low regard for freedom of speech.

For those who suspect that advertising is really not as powerful as The Hidden Persuaders suggests, tobacco's opponents have another argument:

The tobacco companies concealed the hazards of smoking.

This is one of the main rationales for all those lawsuits, and it is potentially a very powerful argument. If cigarette makers hid the truth about their product, if they lied to their customers and led them to believe that smoking isn't dangerous, it would be a classic example of fraud, of selling something under false pretenses. And if smokers were misled by the tobacco industry, it's hard to argue that they made an informed decision to smoke, knowing the risks involved.

It cannot be denied that the tobacco companies for decades questioned the evidence about the health hazards of smoking, even while privately conceding those hazards. Indeed, that is the main reason they have become the most reviled and ridiculed industry in America.

But that very reputation tends to undermine the charge that the tobacco companies fooled us into believing that cigarettes are safe. The truth is that warnings about the health risks of smoking go back hundreds of years. James I, in his 1604 Counterblaste to Tobacco, called smoking "a custome lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse." In every generation, tobacco's opponents have echoed him, attributing a long list of maladies to smoking. Persuasive scientific evidence of tobacco's hazards, which began to emerge in the early 1930s, has received widespread attention since the '50s.

That attention has included thousands of scientific studies, the most important of which were covered in the general press; dozens of surgeon general's reports; countless newspaper and magazine stories; anti-smoking commercials, print ads, billboards, posters, pamphlets, buttons, bumper stickers, and school curricula; and, since 1966, cautionary labels on every package of cigarettes. In the face of all these warnings, it is hard to argue that the tobacco companies succeeded in pulling the wool over our eyes.

In his introduction to The Cigarette Papers, a book that contrasts the industry's public positions with its behind-the-scenes concessions, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop notes that "the public knows about the deleterious effects of smoking," and "even smokers do not believe what they hear from the industry." Nevertheless, he says, "smokers and nonsmokers alike should feel misled by the tobacco companies and their deceptive practices." Got that? We should feel misled, even if we weren't.

If you don't buy that fraud theory, here's another one:

The tobacco companies concealed the addictiveness of smoking.

This argument has the same advantages as the previous one: If smokers didn't know what they were getting into because the tobacco companies lied to them, the transaction is tainted by fraud. And again, it's easy to show that the tobacco companies have been less than candid on this topic.

In the most famous example, the CEOs of the seven leading tobacco companies testified at congressional hearings in 1994 that they did not consider nicotine addictive. Yet 30 years before, Addison Yeaman, then Brown & Williamson's vice president and general counsel, flatly stated in a memo that "nicotine is addictive" and concluded, "We are, then, in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug effective in the release of stress mechanisms."

The argument that the tobacco companies hid the true nature of nicotine suffers from the same disadvantages as the other fraud theory--only more so, since the difficulty of giving up the tobacco habit has been common knowledge for centuries.

James I's lord chancellor, Sir Francis Bacon, observed, "In our times the use of tobacco is growing greatly and conquers men with a certain secret pleasure, so that those who have once become accustomed thereto can later hardly be restrained therefrom."

A 17th-century polemicist called smokers "thralls to the tobacco fiend," while Cotton Mather dubbed them "Slave[s] to the Pipe." Louis XIV's court physician described the tobacco habit as "a fatal, insatiable necessity a permanent epilepsy."

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