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.

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  1. Plausible deniability? Wow!

  2. In my experience, people who refuse to take personal responsibility for their own actions get really upset when you point it out to them. REALLY upset. You’re highlighting the psychological dodge they’ve done to pin the blame on someone, anyone, else. There’s a certain desperation to it that is very disturbing.

  3. Unfortunately, the attitude of the cigarette companies seemed to be that if there were others pointing out the health risks of smoking, it absolved them of their responsibility in lying to the public about their product.

  4. Epi,

    Do you mean like the whole 5 grieving steps to death? Or do you mean he is just one of those people that refuse to believe that truly terrible things can happen to them? My sister died from a lung disease so rare in children that literally its one in a million. I don’t blame others, it was just bad luck.

  5. classwarrior,

    If the government didn’t ban it then they condoned it. See how that sorta logic can work both ways?

  6. Jacob, you are a much braver man than I. Thank you for being willing to weather the ire of the angry and suffering to protect unpopular civil rights.

  7. Did he try to quit in 1984, as soon as he saw the warning?

  8. 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.”

    Liar or idiot? You choose.

    As a teen in the 70’s, my juvi thug buddies called them “cancer sticks.” If those half-wits could figure that out, how did this turd manage to miss it?

  9. Epi,

    There is no anger greater than anger with oneself. It makes everything else so much worse.

  10. This guy Landers sounds like Bob from “Fight Club”. He just went in the opposite direction as far as emotions.

  11. Do you mean like the whole 5 grieving steps to death? Or do you mean he is just one of those people that refuse to believe that truly terrible things can happen to them?

    No, what Rimfax said:

    There is no anger greater than anger with oneself. It makes everything else so much worse.

    The anger with oneself gets redirected at external targets, because directing it inward is too painful and destructive.

    My sister died from a lung disease so rare in children that literally its one in a million.

    I’m sorry to hear that. How old?

  12. Naga-You mean he had bitchtits?

  13. I suppose at some point in the distant past the Merchants of Death misrepresented the effects of smoking. But in my lifetime it isn’t possible that anyone, particularly Landers, could not know that smoking is bad for your health.

    Just the fact that you are sucking smoke into your lungs ought to tip you off immediately.

    The problem with smoking is that there is no immediate downside for most people. You’re twenty, you’re cool. You don’t start feeling the effects of smoking for decades (usually).

    As Dave Barry once pointed out, if everyone who started smoking developed hemorrhoids within a year, nobody would smoke. Truth is, some people are okay with the calculated risk until they get sick.

    And there are people like Woody Allen’s dad who smoked every day of his life and lived to be 99.

  14. While I’m all for personal responsibility, remember that during this time period many manufactures were adding things that made smoking even more addictive than it is today and therefore made it much harder to quit.

    But I’m still in awe of Mr. Landers’s ability to ignore the truth when it was staring him in the face. And then chomping on his ankle.

  15. Epi,

    She had just turned eight when she died. This was in 1993. She actually was one of the first people to have a lung transplant. My mother still has the huge scar where she donated part of her lung.

  16. As a teen in the 70’s, my juvi thug buddies called them “cancer sticks.” If those half-wits could figure that out, how did this turd manage to miss it?

    Heck, several dictionaries agree that coffin nail dates back to the 1880s.

    The cigarette companies may have lied and dissembled, but this guy was either not being honest to everyone else or not being honest to himself when he claimed that he had no idea but one slightly better label would’ve done it. I suppose that was how he rationalized it.

  17. Actually I was under the impression that smokers who developed lung cancer had roughly the same cancer developing average as non-smokers. I was given to understand that heart disease is what really throws the death rate askew.

  18. “Alright! No warning label on this hammer about head trauma! Go ahead Bubba!”

  19. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1988

    He survived for 21 years with lung cancer?

  20. This dude sounds like quite a whiner. If he was a real man, he would have gotten himself machine-gunned by some Asian thugs or something.

  21. This is actually a strangely relevent story in that a woman in Vermont just won a suit against Wyeth about not having sufficient warning labels on one of its products, even though it was compliant with the regulations from the FDA.

  22. David,

    He still died well shy of the average. Personally I feel that he had wimpy genetics. In my family you either die before 30 or become quasi-immortal. Hell, until a few years back I had a great-great grandmother still.

  23. In my family you either die before 30 or become quasi-immortal.

    There can be only one, Naga.

    Hell, until a few years back I had a great-great grandmother still.

    Yeah, but that’s because the women in your family get pregnant at 14.

  24. Epi,

    Ahem. Actually it’s more around 18 to 20. I’ve done the homework. I had to do some genealogy work last year and at other times. Though the example of my 17 year old little brother(or is he 18 now?) should give you some smugness due to him knocking up a 14 year old in Salt Lake City last year.

  25. Epi,

    You have the manners of a goat. And you smell like a dung-heap! And you have no knowledge whatsoever of your potential! Now.

  26. “As a teen in the 70’s, my juvi thug buddies called them “cancer sticks.” If those half-wits could figure that out, how did this turd manage to miss it?”

    They are referred as cancer sticks in at least one 1940’s war movie as well. (I think it was “30 Seconds Over Tokyo”).

    Probably well before that.

  27. Though the example of my 17 year old little brother(or is he 18 now?) should give you some smugness due to him knocking up a 14 year old in Salt Lake City last year.

    Well, that’s certainly…impressive. Is he going to marry her? (snark)

  28. 68 is young today, but not that young. My grandmother was gone when she was my age.

    I don’t know if anybody ever read Mark Kilmer at Red State. He used to review the Sunday news shows.

    He passed away a few weeks ago from throat and mouth cancer, which he told me was a result of smoking unfiltered Lucky’s for about twenty years. He was only in his mid-forties. It was not a pleasant regimen. I think that he had bad genes because almost as soon as the tumor was gone, the cancer came back with a vengeance.

  29. Just the fact that you are sucking smoke into your lungs ought to tip you off immediately.

    Yup.

    The problem with smoking is that there is no immediate downside for most people. You’re twenty, you’re cool. You don’t start feeling the effects of smoking for decades (usually).

    Yeah, there definitely is a maximum time horizon for rational cost-benefit calculations. The vast majority of people do not plan decades into the future, nor to they take into account probabilities that will not manifest for decades when making decisions now. It’s a nasty flaw in human psychological makeup.

    Problem is, of course, the notion of agent responsibility is strongly dependent upon the agent’s capacity for rational decision-making. It is a toughie.

    And I’d like to fourth the comments about anger/denial making people irrational about it *after-the-fact*, driving people who got bit by the probable downsides to deny they had any foreknowledge of the danger. This is a key impulse which drives many erstwhile activists to pursue measures that are repressive; they truly believe deep down that if only someone was around to prevent them from making whatever choice they made, everything would have been OK.

  30. Cathy,

    Love your comic strip.

  31. Oh, I don’t know, if I recall, it was the immediate coughing the cigarettes produced that told me they are bad for me. Although, it was the smell that actually convinced me that I didn’t want to smoke.

    Why do people smoke again?

  32. Epi,

    LOL! The first I knew of my niece was when he showed up at the door with all his shit. It took me about two days before I kicked him out. He actually told ME no when I told him he couldn’t live at my friends house and he tried to pull that temper tantrum bs with me. Shit was being thrown in the yard, neighbors watching and all. It was white trash awesome.

  33. It was white trash awesome.

    Have you ever been, or are you scheduled to be, on Jerry Springer?

    You know, Naga, shit being thrown in the yard is what the camera in your phone is for.

  34. “As Dave Barry once pointed out, if everyone who started smoking developed hemorrhoids within a year, nobody would smoke. Truth is, some people are okay with the calculated risk until they get sick.”

    Perhaps we can splice a gene into tobacco to make that happen?

  35. I took lung cancer like a man.

  36. “This dude sounds like quite a whiner. If he was a real man, he would have gotten himself machine-gunned by some Asian thugs or something.”

    He was a model. That makes him gay. Gay’s whine.

  37. Negative Epi. Jerry Springer won’t pay for your trips anymore besides just the plane tickets. I want comps dammit!

  38. Many smokers are self medicating for depression. Nicotine affects dopamine levels(I think). There was a couple of articles in a Science magazine which did a good job of exploring the link – and I am too lazy to google for them right now.

    The suggestion was that heavy smokers are smoking to keep their brain chemistry balanced. this is understandable, would you rather have 50 years of a happy life, or 80 years of a depressed one?

  39. He said the first surgeon general’s warning, which began appearing on cigarette packages in 1966, did not impress him

    I mean, come on, the guy’s not even a real surgeon or a real general. Why should you trust the SOB?

    Now tobacco companies, they’d never lie to us like that stinking “surgeon general.”

  40. Abdul makes a good point. Why do we have a surgeon general again?

  41. Just like anything else, when the government starts regulating it people assume their personal “Government Guardian Angel”(tm) is on the job. This, they think, relieves them of the responsibility of having to know anything about the subject/activity/product themselves.

    I had to break this to my girlfriend’s father a week ago regarding the SEC, FDIC, etc. regarding his investments. It’s this belief in the government doing your homework for you that allows characters like Madoff and Stanford to exist.

  42. Naga,

    Because the general public is in no position to know what is good or bad for them. We need someone in charge for the people less fortunate than us.

  43. Let’s see…..you’re setting something on fire then breathing the incinerated product of the combustion….hmmmm…nope, no problems here!

  44. Let’s see…..you’re setting something on fire then breathing the incinerated product of the combustion….

    And looking damn cool while doing so.

  45. Heh. Guy sounds like my dad. Dad is amazingly bitter about tobacco companies to the point where having a rational discussion on the subject was impossible. His father (my grandfather) smoked unfiltered Camels for 50 years and finally kicked off due to lung cancer in his late 70s. Why this is the tobacco companies fault, I still haven’t figured out. I mean, Joe Camel wasn’t coming over with a gun and making gramps light up. Shit, after he got emphysema the old goat would turn off his oxygen bottle and unhook so he could have another butt. I can’t blame anybody but him for that.

  46. I don’t understand how anyone could NOT think that smoking is bad from you, just from the experience or concept.

  47. I mean, it’s almost fucking a priori.

  48. Now who has done more research on the subject then the fine people in the tobacco industry.

    You can’t buy cigarettes if your dead!

  49. There are anti-smoking pamphlets from the 1600’s. They detail how it makes your breath stink and yellows your teeth. This guy is just a liar.

  50. There are anti-smoking pamphlets from the 1600’s. They detail how it makes your breath stink and yellows your teeth. This guy is just a liar.

    But he lived in New York, so the warnings didn’t mean anything to him at the time. Plus, who was paying attention during the 1600’s? Only squares!

  51. Legate Damar,

    Wasn’t it New Amsterdam in the 1600s?

  52. I hate when people shrill that its the tobacco companies fault…especially the ones that say they started “before we knew better.”

    I’m sorry, but the first time I put a cigarrette in my mouth and inhaled SMOKE…my first thought wasn’t exactly how healthy I thought the whole experience was.

  53. “They’re merchants of death. Do you know what it’s like to have lung cancer?…How dare you defend them!”

    The proper retort to that would be, “I’m not defending THEM, I’m blaming YOU for being a liar.”

  54. The last time I went to the doctor, she asked the check list of standard questions. It included asking if I smoked. I told her I just have a small cigar once a year on my birthday. She said that doesn’t count and wrote down “no”. It’s nice to know that a least one medical professional is taking a rational approach to dose dependent smoking risks.

  55. With a hidey lidey lidey and a hidey lidey lay,
    We work and we make cigarettes all hidey lidey day.
    So folks can get a breaky from their stressful lidey lives,
    And relaxy with the cigarettes we make all day and night.

    I like to have a cigarette every now and then,
    It makes me fee-l calmer when the day is at an end.

    And if it gives me cancer when I’m 80 I don’t care.
    Who the hell wants to be 90 anyway?

    So with a hidey lidey lidey and a hidey lidey lay,
    We work and we make cigarettes all hidey lidey day.
    So folks can get a breaky from their stressful lidey lives,
    And relaxy with the cigarettes we make all day and night.

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