Tobacco

'By the Time I Found Out That It Causes Lung Cancer…It Was Too Late'

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Alan Landers, Winston model turned anti-smoking activist, died last week at the age of 68 from "complications of treatment for cancer of the larynx." He had already beaten the odds by surviving lung cancer that was diagnosed two decades ago. My one encounter with Landers was during a 1995 radio debate that I still vividly remember because he was so angry. Since he's dead, I guess I should say "passionate," but that does not quite communicate the level of emotion I elicited by arguing that people who smoke are aware of the hazards involved. Here is how I described the encounter in For Your Own Good, my book on the anti-smoking movement:

Alan Landers,  a former model for Winston cigarettes, was suing several tobacco companies for manufacturing the product he used to promote. Then in his 50s, Landers had tried his first cigarette when he was 9 and had begun smoking heavily as an adult. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1988. "At what point did you realize that smoking was bad for you?" the talk show's host asked him. "I got lung cancer," Landers replied, "and heard the truth about how the tobacco industry, the cigarette companies lie to you. He said the first surgeon general's warning, which began appearing on cigarette packages in 1966, did not impress him: "That label said, 'Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.' Well, I lived in New York at the time. So is walking across the street. That meant nothing. From 1970 to 1984, the next label was, 'Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is hazardous to your health.' Well, that doesn't say the truth either. Now, 1984 to present, they finally came out and said, 'Surgeon General's Warning: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, and emphysema.'…By the time I found out that it causes lung cancer, it was in 1984. I got my cancer in '88. It was too late."

The host asked Landers about the many statements by scientists and government officials regarding the hazards of smoking. "That means nothing," he said. "That's announced like one time, or put in a newspaper. I didn't happen to see that. What means something is what they're putting on their labeling….If I saw a pack of cigarettes, and it said, 'Addictive Poison,' I never would have smoked." Landers's claim that he did not know about the link between smoking and lung cancer until 1984 is hard to believe. The hazards of smoking, especially the risk of lung cancer, had been widely publicized since the early 1950s. In addition to thousands of scientific studies, the most important of which were covered in the general press, the surgeon general has issued two dozen reports on the health consequences of smoking, beginning in 1964. Voluntary health organizations have been urging smokers to quit for decades through posters, pamphlets, and commercials. In the late 1960s and early '70s, when Landers was hawking Winstons in magazine ads and billboards, anti-smoking public service announcements appeared frequently on radio and TV. Little kids like me [I was born in 1965] got the message. It's hard to see how anyone could have missed it.

Since the hazards of cigarettes have long been common knowledge, I argued, smokers cannot reasonably blame the tobacco companies if they get sick as a result of their habit. Not surprisingly, Landers did not like this argument. "You know," he said, "you ought to be ashamed of yourself. Do you smoke?…Do you have any children?…What I'm trying to tell you is, we're not talking about the common cold. We're talking about lung cancer. Smoking-related illness kills half a million a year….In the world, 3 million a year are dying. So how you could defend the cigarette companies is beyond me. It's killing people. We're murdering our children." A little later, after the host asked me who was publishing my book, Landers interjected: "Make money off the pain and suffering of others. That's really something. I don't know how you can live with yourself." I asked him what he meant. "You're defending the tobacco companies," he said. "They're merchants of death. Do you know what it's like to have lung cancer?…How dare you defend them!"

Landers' anger was understandable, given the suffering caused by his cigarette habit and his guilt over helping to promote the Winston brand. Surely he made up for his one week of work for R.J. Reynolds by vividly publicizing the hazards of smoking for the rest of his life. But at the same time, his refusal to accept any responsibility for continuing to smoke as an adult, along with his portrayal of nicotine addiction as irresistible and inescapable, undermined the message the anti-smoking movement should be sending: that we are masters of our own behavior, that we bear the consequences of our decisions, and that we therefore should choose wisely, with our eyes wide open.