Raging Bull


A casual look in one of my kitchen cupboards turns up half a dozen items promoted as "all natural," with "no additives." Given the prevailing prejudice against synthetic chemicals, many consumers probably interpret these boasts to mean that such products are healthier than other brands, even though there is no evidence to support that belief.

Since the federal government has long allowed food manufacturers to entice people with this naturalistic fallacy, the fuss over R.J. Reynolds' "No Bull" campaign for Winston cigarettes is a bit puzzling. The campaign, which began in 1997, emphasizes that the reformulated Winston brand contains "no additives."

In response to a complaint from anti-smoking groups, the Federal Trade Commission concluded that the ads were deceptive because they implied that Winstons were safer than other cigarettes. Now RJR has agreed to settle this charge by including a disclaimer in future Winston ads: "No additives in our tobacco does NOT mean a safer cigarette."

Jodie Bernstein, the FTC's director of consumer protection, said "Reynolds' disclosure should clear up any misconception that cigarettes without additives are safer to smoke than other cigarettes." Yet the main source of this misconception was the anti-smoking movement, not the tobacco industry.

For years the same activists who attacked the "No Bull" campaign have been ominously warning the public that tobacco companies add all sorts of unknown ingredients to their cigarettes. That concern led to a 1984 law requiring cigarette makers to keep the Department of Health and Human Services apprised of the additives they use.

In April 1994, responding to steady complaints that this information had not been made public, the tobacco companies released a comprehensive list of 599 chemicals. Their critics still were not satisfied, saying the list did not indicate the amounts or brands in which the additives were used–recipes the manufacturers consider trade secrets.

"They keep saying it's a natural product, and here they add 600 chemicals to it," Joe Cherner, president of SmokeFree Educational Services, told The Dallas Morning News that summer. "The same authority that still doesn't admit smoking causes cancer is telling us these chemicals are safe."

John Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health, also tried to scare people about the dangers of cigarette additives. "Sara Lee can't suddenly decide to slip chemical 'xyz' into its cheesecake because they think it'll taste better and then wait to see if people die," he said. "But the tobacco industry can."

The clear import of such comments is that cigarettes with additives are more dangerous than cigarettes without additives. This necessarily means that cigarettes without additives are less dangerous–precisely the implication for which Banzhaf and other activists have taken RJR to task.

This sort of contradiction is not unusual in the anti-smoking movement. A major theme of anti-tobacco propaganda and litigation, for example, is the failure of cigarette manufacturers to make their products safer. Yet in 1988, when RJR introduced Premier, a brand that seemed to be much less toxic than conventional cigarettes, the American Lung Association said, "We think it's just a desperate attempt on their part to reverse the growing social taboo against smoking."

As Matthew Meyers, then staff director of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, explained, "The fact that a product is safer doesn't mean that there is a net health gain if it ends up leading more people to smoke." According to this reasoning, cigarettes should be kept as dangerous as possible, the better to deter smoking.

Similarly, activists have long complained that smoking creates a nuisance for bystanders. But last year, when Philip Morris introduced a cigarette contraption called Accord that dramatically reduces secondhand smoke, Richard Daynard of the Tobacco Products Liability Project warned that teenagers could use the device to hide their cigarette habits from their parents.

Nowadays it is common to hear anti-smoking groups criticize tobacco companies for keeping their customers hooked by "manipulating" nicotine delivery. Yet in 1991, when Philip Morris introduced Next and Merit DeNic, two brands with virtually no nicotine, some of the same groups tried to keep them off the market. Go figure.

A hundred years ago, the Tennessee Supreme Court declared that cigarettes "possess no virtue, but are inherently bad, bad only." Tobacco's contemporary opponents seem to have a similar view of cigarette manufacturers: Whatever they do, it can't be good. This is the thread of consistency that leads to so much inconsistency.