Cigarette advertising: How government regulation and public perception changed everything
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“Won’t someone think of the children?”
No matter your political affiliation, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s against shielding children from addictive substances—or technology—that damage physical and mental health. If you’re a regulator, you’re more likely to see success if you start by designing frameworks for the benefit of young people and branching out from there.
Conversely, if you’re a company trying to get regulators off your back, it also works to offer the protection of children as a bargaining chip against further regulation that would affect revenue from adults. This is exactly what happened in 1964 with the Cigarette Advertising Code, which was created by tobacco companies in part as a way to sacrifice advertising to children for the chance to continue advertising to adults amidst public pressure to stop.
Big surprise—the tobacco industry failed to regulate itself. Companies handed out free cigarette samples to children in Black neighborhoods. They designed cartoon characters to entice children to smoke. And in 2016, the CDC found that an estimated 4 in 5 American middle and high school students were exposed to e-cigarette ads from at least one source, which was a “significant increase over 2014 and 2015.”
Studies in 1991 demonstrated that Joe Camel appealed to children far more than adults. Photo credit: The Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society
It was only in the 1970s that government regulators would finally begin to listen to the medical community and restrict cigarette advertising in any meaningful way. But does that mean cigarette advertising stopped?
No—because no one is better at finding regulation loopholes than a tobacco company. Keep reading to learn how cigarette advertising has skirted regulations for more than 50 years, ultimately spending more than they ever have to acquire new loyal customers.
An advertising free-for-all: Doctors and cigarettes
While the mass production of cigarettes began in the 1880s with rolling machine innovations, smoking wouldn’t really pick up until World War I. During the war, cigarettes were given to soldiers for free or at a heavy discount as a necessary part of their rations.
Trench warfare during World War I was especially brutal. No one was thinking about the long-term effects of smoking when they could be blown up in a ditch at any moment. Lucky for tobacco companies, such cavalier attitudes toward smoking in the trenches created a generation of loyal (addicted) smokers who needed only to be directed to the right brand.
Cigarette advertising from the 1920s to the 1950s was a playground filled with colorful print ads, celebrity endorsements, fictional doctors, and paid product placement in film. One of the most iconic ads of the era is American Tobacco’s “20,679 physicians” campaign for Lucky Strikes, which started in 1930.
While many American doctors suspected that cigarettes weren’t good for you, most were concerned about throat irritation, not lung cancer. This gave cigarette companies the opportunity to compete against each other by claiming their brand was milder on the throat than others.
American Tobacco demonstrated this concept by sending physicians a carton of Lucky Strikes and a letter asking whether they thought the cigarettes were “less irritating to sensitive and tender throats than other cigarettes.” The letter contained some shocking leading sentences that primed physicians to answer positively, including a phrase stating “a good many people” thought Lucky Strikes were less irritating.
When American Tobacco received enough positive replies, the company took them to mean that doctors endorsed Lucky Strikes. For years American Tobacco used the number to show that doctors had signed off on their brand, while claiming that their “toasting” method for processing tobacco created a gentle cigarette that was healthier than others.
It’s a myth that the link between cigarettes and lung cancer wasn’t known when tobacco companies ran ads featuring medical professionals. In Europe, smoking had been suspected as the cause of skyrocketing lung cancer rates since the 1920s. In 1929, German internist Fritz Lickint published a thorough research study on the link between cancer and cigarettes, which was used to fuel the anti-tobacco movement in Nazi Germany. In 1932, a study from Poland confirmed Lickint’s results.
But where there’s truth, there’s misinformation. As the medical community, then the general public, began to gain awareness of the harmful effects of smoking, the tobacco industry was free to react as they pleased in the absence of government regulation on advertising.
Big tobacco’s first misinformation campaign
American doctors weren’t exactly ready to listen to their German peers in the 1930s, and the medical community was slow to react to findings overseas. The government was even slower. It wouldn’t be until after World War II that the Federal Communications Commission tried to offset cigarette advertising by requiring television stations to air anti-smoking ads at no cost to the advertiser.
In the 1950s, as television began to replace radio as a main form of media consumption, Americans saw some of the first anti-smoking ads on record. This ad by Norwich for Flavettes, a smoking cessation aid, promised to “curb the appetite” to get ahead of fears of weight gain as a result of quitting smoking.
While attempts to offset the effects of cigarette ads likely appeased a few doctors, it did little to slow the efforts of tobacco companies to mislead the public. In 1954, after public awareness of the link between cancer and cigarettes began to pick up, several major American tobacco companies banded together to create the industry’s first large-scale misinformation campaign.
Published as a letter in 400 newspapers that reached 43 million Americans, “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” tried to unravel public perceptions of cigarettes and lung cancer by claiming the link wasn’t as strong as researchers claimed. The ad also announced the formation of the Tobacco Industry Research Committee, later known as the Tobacco Institute, a sham research arm that was disbanded in 1998 as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement.
Another ten years passed before the U.S. Surgeon General published its findings on cigarettes and health outcomes. During that decade, the tobacco industry was left to control the narrative on smoking until it was forced to make some concessions in the face of possible government regulation.
The tobacco industry promises to regulate itself … and co-opts social movements
In 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General published Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States. The report was based on more than 7,000 scientific articles that linked tobacco use with cancer and other diseases.
Backed into a corner, tobacco companies came together once again to form the Cigarette Advertising Code. As a way to get ahead of formal advertising regulations, the code was a promise from tobacco companies to stop promoting cigarettes to young people and to stop using fraudulent health claims in ads. The result? Subtle ads that were mostly cooler than their outdated predecessors.
A great example of the tobacco industry’s adaptive marketing tactics is from Philip Morris. In 1968, the tobacco giant launched the first feminist cigarette campaign for Virginia Slims. The tagline reads, “You’ve come a long way” alongside stories about how women were restricted from smoking before second wave feminism came along to secure every woman’s right to smoke.
The tobacco industry didn’t just co-opt the white feminist movement to sell cigarettes. As the Black civil rights movement progressed through the 1960s, tobacco companies identified Black communities as an untapped market. A well-known example is from R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which bought billboards in Black neighborhoods to advertise their Newport brand of menthol cigarettes.
Over time, menthol cigarette ads targeting Black smokers worked. In 2020, the Truth Initiative discovered that “nearly 90% of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, which are easier to smoke and harder to quit.”
Finding all the loopholes: Ad restrictions force crafty tactics and athletic sponsorships
In 1970, U.S. Congress finally conceded that the tobacco industry couldn’t be trusted to regulate itself. That year President Nixon signed the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, which banned cigarette ads on television and radio starting on January 2, 1971. The last television ad ever shown in the United States was for Virginia Slims, on January 1, 1971 at 11:59pm during a commercial break on The Tonight Show.
While the ban was a necessary step forward, it left a lot of room in marketing budgets for print advertising, out-of-home ads, sponsorships, and in-store advertising. In 1991, 20 years after the ban, the tobacco industry was spending $4.6 billion on marketing — but only $700 million on advertising. The rest was spent on point-of-sale displays, marketing reps, product placement in film, sponsored content, and other stealth tactics.
After the ban, tobacco companies began sponsoring sporting events as a way to get in front of as many people as possible. A 1994 internal presentation from Philip Morris revealed plans to target football fans because it’s “a very masculine, somewhat rugged sport; very popular among YAMS [young adult male smokers], nicely complements F1 as a Marlboro property.”
The Marlboro brand has indeed had a longstanding relationship with Formula One that has caused tension between governing bodies and anti-smoking advocates. In the 1990s, it was common to see the Marlboro logo plastered across banners, flags, and cars during F1 events. The placements were supposed to end in 2006, when F1 banned tobacco advertising.
Except they didn’t. Ferrari, a supplier of F1 vehicles, never terminated their 45-year partnership with Philip Morris. Instead they continued to advertise Marlboro through subliminal tactics like the 2019 “Mission Winnow” campaign, a sham initiative “dedicated to finding non-smoking tobacco alternatives.”
STOP, an anti-smoking organization, found that “F1 has made more than $4.4 billion* from tobacco companies advertising their brands and products. This will rise to $4.5 billion in the 2020 season.”
These tactics manage to subvert the 1997 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which banned outdoor, billboard, and public transportation advertising of cigarettes in 46 states, and the 2010 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, which prohibits tobacco companies from sponsoring sports, music, and other cultural events. But because there’s no actual Marlboro logo in sight, Philip Morris sails through its sponsorship unscathed.
Repeating history: Vaping and e-cigarettes
Advertising constraints on cigarettes don’t apply to vape products and e-cigarettes — but Juul’s trajectory as a company would have you believe history is repeating itself.
Valued in 2018 at $38 billion, Juul has since been questioned by U.S. regulators about its advertising tactics toward teens. That’s because after two decades of declining youth smoking rates, more than 25% of teens used tobacco products in 2018 — the vast majority of which were vaping.
While originally developed as a smoking cessation tool, Juul began to position itself within the teen market through its sweet pod flavors, bright ad graphics, and social media campaigns. The company sold Juuls to celebrity influencers for as little as $1 so they could capture teens’ attention. The product’s sleek design also appealed to teens who wanted to keep their vape habit under the radar.
By 2018, Juul had captured 68% of the $1.9 billion e-cigarette market — which attracted attention from the FDA. That same year, the regulator opened an investigation of Juul after parents and school administrators warned the FDA that teens were starting to vape a lot. This makes sense when you find out a Juul pod contains 59 mg of nicotine, the same as an entire pack of cigarettes and three times the legal limit for e-cigarettes in the European Union.
Just as tobacco companies panicked in 1964 and created the Cigarette Advertising Code to avoid heavy-handed regulation, Juul responded quickly by pulling most of its sweet and fruity flavors from shelves. The company, since purchased by Altria (parent company of Philip Morris USA), disputed that its advertising was ever intended for teens and claimed to be fighting underage access to its products.
But the brand has suffered nonetheless. Juul finished 2020 with a revised valuation of $1.6 billion, down from $38 billion just two years prior. The e-cigarette industry as a whole, however, hasn’t been damaged nearly as much.
In October 2021, the FDA made its first authorization for the tobacco industry when it sanctioned the marketing of electronic nicotine delivery system (ENDS) products through the Premarket Tobacco Product Application (PMTA) pathway. The request was submitted by R.J. Reynolds (RJR) Vapor Company for its Vuse Solo and has since extended to products sold by Logic, owned by Japan Tobacco International.
The PMTA pathway allows e-cigarette manufacturers to advertise if they can demonstrate that the “marketing of the new tobacco product would be appropriate for the protection of the public health.” The FDA determined that the benefits of e-cigarettes as smoking cessation tools outweigh the potential risk to young people because “products’ aerosols are significantly less toxic than combusted cigarettes based on available data comparisons and results of nonclinical studies.”
In an attempt to discourage teen vaping, the FDA is denying e-cigarette companies the right to sell flavored e-cigarettes — except for menthol. On that, the FDA is undecided and has been for some time. But if you’re advertising a tobacco-flavored e-cigarette that’s positioned to prevent or stop people from smoking cigarettes, you can go right ahead and promote your brand.
But the vape landscape is looking suspiciously familiar. Pro-vaping non-profits exist to promote the benefits of vaping over smoking. Research studies are starting to disprove dubious claims about e-cigarettes, namely that they are 95% less harmful than cigarettes. Long-term studies on the effects of vaping don’t exist because vaping hasn’t been around long enough for clinical trials to assess the full risk.
“We promise to leave the children out of it,” vape brands are now saying. U.S. Congress seems ready for another round of putting their trust in tobacco companies to do the right thing.