Tobacco Giants


"What do you want: good grammar or good taste?" When I was about 4, I used to turn somersaults in the living room while singing that jingle at the top of my lungs.

Years later, I realized that the TV commercial which inspired these antics was a response to criticism of another slogan, "Winston tastes good–like a cigarette should." Grammatical sticklers had insisted that it ought to be, "Winston tastes good–as a cigarette should."

At the time, the point of this dispute would have been lost on me. But the commercial obviously made a big impression. I immediately took up smoking.

No, not really. Despite years of exposure to such propaganda, I did not try a cigarette until I was 17, and I've never been a regular smoker.

Then again, cigarette commercials were banned from the airwaves, under a law supported by the tobacco industry, a couple of years after I started parroting the Winston spot. Perhaps if the ads had stayed on TV and radio through my adolescent years, I'd be smoking a pack of Winstons a day.

But probably not. As I grew up, I was exposed to such strong anti-smoking messages from so many sources that, by the age of 10, I was hiding my family's ashtrays and posting "Thank You for Not Smoking" signs all over the house.

It's doubtful that removing cigarettes ads from TV and radio helped reduce the number of smokers in this country. Indeed, per capita cigarette consumption, which had been dropping, rose for three years in a row after the ban took effect before resuming a downward trend.

Now, as part of a deal resolving lawsuits by 46 states, cigarette billboards have joined cigarette commercials in the Museum of Forbidden Advertising. Motorists and pedestrians can say goodbye to the rugged men lighting up astride their horses and the smartly dressed women with cigarettes dangling from their manicured fingertips. The tobacco giants are gone.

For my daughter, who is not quite 6, these once ubiquitous signs will become at most a dim memory, like my recollections of Winston commercials from the late '60s. Will this make her less likely to smoke?

The evidence is equivocal. As the 1989 surgeon general's report observed, "There is no scientifically rigorous study available to the public that provides a definitive answer to the basic question of whether advertising and promotion increase the level of tobacco consumption. Given the complexity of the issue, none is likely to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future."

That remains true, despite periodic bursts of publicity surrounding studies that supposedly provide the missing link. Contrary to what you may have read in the papers, none of these studies has ever shown that exposure to advertising makes people more likely to smoke.

Instead, the studies demonstrate that 6-year-olds know who Joe Camel is, or that teenagers who smoke tend to favor the most popular brands, or that teenagers who own merchandise imprinted with cigarette brand logos are more likely to be smokers. Most of all, they demonstrate how eager tobacco's opponents are to convince us that advertising makes people smoke.

But now that the most conspicuous form of cigarette advertising has been eliminated, these critics don't sound so sure. When he negotiated his state's separate settlement with the tobacco companies in the spring of 1998, Minnesota Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III made sure that advertising restrictions were part of the agreement. Yet after last fall's announcement of the 46-state deal–which bans billboards along with cartoon characters, promotional items, and product placement in movies–he was suddenly skeptical.

"Judging from the experience of those countries where all advertising is banned but teen-agers still light up in droves," Humphrey wrote in The New York Times, "limits on advertising may not make much difference." Now he tells us.

The truth is that cigarette billboards came down not because they were known to play an important role in smoking by teenagers but because they offended people who disapprove of smoking by anyone. They were the most visible symbol of America's most vilified industry.

Though it was achieved through the threat of devastating liability, this censorship is officially voluntary, so it won't face a First Amendment challenge. But in a nation that proudly allows racist fulminations, communist propaganda, and sacrilegious art, it is odd that big pictures of smoking cowboys have proven intolerable.