There’s something about the tobacco industry running anti-smoking ads as part of a federal consent order that just doesn’t smell right to advocates of free speech.
After 11 years of appeals and legal wrangling, tobacco companies are scheduled to launch Sunday a 52-week ad campaign on the health dangers of cigarettes and secondhand smoke, marking a first in the industry’s lengthy court battle with the U.S. Justice Department.
“Make no mistake: The tobacco companies are not running these ads voluntarily or because of a legal settlement,” said a statement this week by six public health intervenors, including the American Cancer Society and Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
“They were ordered to do so by a federal court that found they engaged in massive wrongdoing that has resulted in ‘a staggering number of deaths per year, an immeasurable amount of human suffering and economic loss, and a profound burden on our national health care system,’ as U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler wrote in her 2006 final opinion,” said the statement.
For others, however, the ad campaign begs the question: What next? Will McDonald’s be required one day to run commercials linking the Big Mac to obesity, or Mars explaining the role of its candy bars in promoting tooth decay?
“This shouldn’t be upsetting just to people who smoke. This should be upsetting to any civil libertarian who doesn’t believe that government should coerce speech,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute in Denver.
What irks anti-smoking groups is that the companies — R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris USA, Altria and Lorillard — managed to meet the requirements of the consent decree with a collection of rather blah ads.
The television spots, which are required to run in prime time five times per week on ABC, CBS or NBC, feature black lettering on a white background with a female narrator who makes it clear at the outset that the ads were ordered by a federal court.
“It’s black type scrolling on a white screen with the most uninteresting voice in the background,” Robin Koval, president of the Truth Initiative, which runs anti-tobacco ads aimed at children, told The Associated Press.
AdAge called it “the most bland anti-smoking campaign you will ever see.”
The commercials are certainly nowhere near as compelling as those produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its 5-year-old “Tips from Former Smokers” campaign, which feature graphic testimony from people struggling with tracheotomies, disfigurement and amputations.
In her 2006 ruling, Judge Kessler found that the industry had “marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
She ordered the companies to publish the “corrective statements” on five topics related to smoking: the adverse health effects, addictive properties, lack of significant health benefit from “low tar” or “light” cigarettes, cigarette designs used to “ensure optimum nicotine delivery,” and secondhand smoke.
The ads represent the first time tobacco companies have advertised on television since they were banned from pitching their brands in 1971.
In addition to television, the commercials are slated to appear on the web and in full-page ads in more than 50 newspapers.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in 2009 that the First Amendment did not protect the tobacco industry from fraudulent statements, saying that “we are not dealing with accidental falsehoods, or sincere attempts to persuade.”
R.J. Reynolds said in a statement that the tobacco industry “is very different than it was when this lawsuit was filed in 1999.”
“More than a decade ago, Reynolds American Inc. and its operating companies began a journey to transform the tobacco industry,” said the company. “Today, the industry is working with the FDA, other regulators and some in the public health community to create a regulated marketplace that encourages innovation while reducing harm from smoking.”
After a 50-year public health campaign about the deleterious consequences of smoking, it’s fair to ask whether any U.S. adult or teenager is unaware that cigarettes are dangerous.
“It would be different if this was 50 years ago and somebody, anybody, actually thought that cigarettes were not unhealthy,” said Mr. Caldara. “But there’s nobody, nobody today who believes that smoking is good for you.”
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