Smokeless in Seattle
The Seattle Times attracted much attention when it banned tobacco ads. But some newspapers that adopted similar policies have abandoned them. The high-profile action doesn't necessarily signal a trend.
"I must say, I was astounded by the reaction," Seattle Times President H. Mason Sizemore says of the attention his paper received when it announced in June that it would ban all tobacco ads at the end of this year. Overnight the Times, with a daily circulation of 239,500, became the largest U.S. paper currently banning such ads – and the decision generated headline news. "I must have given over 50 interviews in the first week," says Sizemore. "Reporters called me from around the world."
ýizemore was persuaded to pull the plug on the tobacco industry in part by a lobbying campaign spearheaded by Washington Doctors Ought to Care (DOC), a statewide health advocacy organization. The group contends that cigarette companies aim their ad- verising at children.
Tobacco companies have always maintained that advertising does not encourage new smokers to take up the habit; instead, they say, it merely attempts to convince consumers who are already hooked to switch to their brand. "What they want is brand loyalty in a shrinking market," says Bill Wordham of the Tobacco Institute, the industry trade association. "Claims that cigarette advertising is aimed at underaged smokers get people's attention, but it's simply not true... The industry has supported the minimum age laws for smoking in every state."
Nevertheless, Washington DOC's critique helped convince Sizemore and his colleagues to enact a ban.
"We want our columns to be as open as they can be," Sizemore says, "and this is a legal product, of course. But the medical evidence at this point was irrefutable – on cancer, on heart disease. And their advertising in the media is so dominant that we hardly felt that by making this decision we were in any way restraining their right or ability to sell this product. We just couldn't in conscience be a part of it any more." Another Seattle Times Co.-owned daily, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, also announced in June that it would institute a ban.
At least 12 U.S. newspapers currently ban cigarette advertising. They range in size from the 7,800-circulation News Sun in Kendallville, Indiana, to the Times. Not all bans have been prompted by public health considerations; many of the oldest standing bans have religious or moral origins. The Christian Science Monitor and Salt Lake City's Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon Church, have always banned liquor and cigarette advertising. Other tobacco-free papers have their roots in the temperance movement of the first three decades of this century. Among them is the Daily American in Somerset, Pennsylvania, which has been owned by the same family for three generations.
Since 1964, when a U.S. surgeon general's report alerted the public to the dangers of smoking, at least nine newspapers have instituted bans. At least seven papers, however, have dropped them over the last three decades. They include perhaps the two largest to ban tobacco advertising, the 500,000-circulation Boston Globe and the 349,000-circulation St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In any case, in 1990, tobacco ads accounted for only $71 million of the $32.3 billion spent on newspaper ad lineage – a meager .2 percent, according to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Newspaper Association of America (NAA) data. In Seattle, the percentage is even less.
"Tobacco ads account for maybe $100,000 to $150,000 a year in Times revenues," Sizemore says. "As a percentage of our ad base, which is at about $200 million, it's insignificant – though in these times, when ad revenues are down, any decision like this is a weighty one."
Tobacco companies play a larger role as sponsors of sports and cultural events, like golf tournaments or local festivals, and in magazines, for which they provide nearly 3 percent of all ad revenue, according to the FTC. Only a very few publications, such as Good Housekeeping, Mother Jones, the New Yorker, Reader's Digest, Seventeen and the Washington Monthly, refuse tobacco ads.
Until recently, tobacco advertising was as prevalent in Canadian publications. That changed in the late 1980s, when the decision of one respected publisher, Michael Davies of the Whig Standard in Kingston, Ontario, to ban such ads led to a chain reaction at nearly all major press outlets in the country. Those bans, and a concerted lobbying effort by anti-smoking activists, convinced the government to pass the most restrictive legislation on tobacco advertising in the world.
The U.S. government banned cigarette advertising on
radio and television in the early 1970s, and recently there have been bills introduced in Congress to further regulate such ads in the print press. But short of government action, and given that most U.S. newspapers already editorialize against tobacco, isn't there an inherent conflict in accepting ads encouraging readers to smoke?
Sizemore thinks so. "These ads were designed to kill our readers," he says, "so we decided to refuse them."
Freedom of Speech?
The medical evidence of tobacco's addictive and deadly consequences is overwhelming. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people die each year from heart disease, cancer, emphysema and more than a dozen other illnesses caused or exacerbated by smoking. The U.S. government estimates that in the United States alone 418,690 deaths a year are directly attributable to tobacco.
Although the incidence of smoking in the United States has dropped over the last 20 years, 25 percent of Americans still smoke; it's estimated that as many as one third of them will die from smoking-related diseases.
The tobacco industry maintains there is no direct link between smoking and disease. "The industry acknowledges there are health risks associated with smoking," says Wordham of the Tobacco Institute, "but no causation has been proven."
Forty years ago newspapers and radio were the primary beneficiaries of tobacco industry advertising, but cigarette companies largely abandoned papers for television in the early 1950s. When Congress banned broadcast ads for cigarettes in 1971, instead of returning to newspapers, the companies turned to promoting cultural and sporting events.
The industry spends a lot of money to promote its products. According to the FTC, tobacco companies spent $1.14 billion on newspaper, magazine, billboard, transit and point-of-sale advertising in 1990, and another $2.8 billion on promotions such as coupon giveaways and on public events. Only $71 million, or 1.8 percent, of their total outlays went to newspaper ads.
Cigarette manufacturers say the question of whether to allow tobacco advertising hinges on the legal right of corporations to hawk their wares. "We believe it is clearly unconstitutional to ban ads for a legal product," says Wordham.
Max Thomson, publisher of the New Castle News in Pennsylvania, echoes the most common rationale given by news managers who print tobacco ads. "I feel this is a freedom of speech issue," he says. "The market should decide on any legal product." The News, which has a circulation of 21,000, was founded 114 years ago as a prohibitionist paper and had banned liquor and cigarette ads until the Thomson chain of 110 papers bought it five years ago and reversed the policy in 1991. (Max Thomson is not related to the Thomson newspaper family.)
The Newspaper Association of America says papers should be free to accept tobacco ads. "We think legal products have the right to advertise," says NAA President Cathleen Black. "It is the publisher's discretion to accept or reject advertising and editorial."
The distinction between constitutionally guaranteed free speech and commercial free speech is fuzzy, but several recent court decisions have indicated that when speech involves advertising for a "vice" such as gambling, alcohol or tobacco, legislatures have a wide latitude in regulating, even banning, it. If the Supreme Court were faced with deciding whether a ban on tobacco advertising was constitutional, says Patrick Maines, president of the Media Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research organization, the court might narrowly support that ban. But Maines is opposed to any restrictions on free speech, commercial or political, to achieve social goals.
"Once you ban tobacco ads, where do you stop?" he says. "Do you ban other products that used one way or another are damaging to health? Do you ban products that you simply don't like morally, like war toys? I don't think it's a slippery slope. It's a cliff."
If it's a cliff, many newspapers have already jumped off. Newspaper publishers have routinely rejected all sorts of ads in their self-appointed capacity as moral guardians of the community. The New York Times refuses ads for bust developers, the San Diego Union-Tribune won't accept ads that refer to abortion, and the Bluffton, Indiana, News-Banner rejects adoption ads. Last January Baltimore's Sun banned all handgun ads, as have other papers around the country, including the Seattle Times and Los Angeles Times. And "family" newspapers have long struggled with questions of taste raised by ads for X-rated movies, topless bars and condoms. Often enough they've answered those questions either by banning sex-related ads outright or making suggested changes in copy and illustrations. Community standards for the décolletage of porn stars, for example, are still met in the makeup rooms of many small town papers with a few strokes of a Magic Marker.
Tobacco is unique, however; there is no other product advertised in the media, including liquor, that has no safe use.
Some anti-smoking activists allege that tobacco ads are not only harmful to readers, but corrupt the way newspapers deal with the issue. In Canada, says Garfield Mahood, executive director of the Non-Smokers Rights Association, newspapers were running soft editorials on smoking and health issues, if they ran them at all. "Take my word for it, the minute you get tobacco ads out of the newspapers, the difference in their editorials is striking," says Mahood, whose group is widely credited with pushing through Canada's Tobacco Products Control Act, which bans cigarette ads. "Overnight they become advocates. It's hard to do that when your editorial or news story is printed on the back of a full page spot for Player's cigarettes."
John Banzhaf, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), doesn't see the same influence here. "Our concerns about undue influence on editorial policy are not serious with most [newspapers]," he says. "Direct conflicts are far more numerous at slick magazines; that's because magazines get more of their revenue from tobacco ads and also because most newspapers have a greater commitment to journalistic standards than magazines do. Our concern is that by continuing to run [tobacco] ads newspapers give cigarettes a kind of legitimacy and respectability they should not have."
The irony for newspapers in the tobacco advertising controversy lies in the way that their news columns have heightened public concern. And it's especially telling when a paper reverses its stand on the issue. That's what happened when the New York Times Co. bought the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, a strong anti-tobacco advocate, and rescinded its ad ban.
The Times itself had a history of dealing with the smoking issue head-on. After the surgeon general's report on the dangers of tobacco appeared in 1964, the Times' coverage of the issue was among the most detailed and committed in the nation. Around 1969 – about the time the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch announced their tobacco ad bans – the Times mandated that because of its concern about the effects of smoking, all tobacco companies would be required to include health warnings on any ad it ran. Every tobacco company withdrew its advertising in protest.
In 1972 the FTC declared that all tobacco ads had to carry the surgeon general's warning. The Times' management promptly announced that the text of the warning label met the essential goals of the paper's policy, and one by one the major cigarette companies resumed their ad buys. Today the Times earns about $1 million a year from cigarette ads, most of which appears in its Sunday magazine.
The Times does ban certain kinds of ads. Besides those for bust developers, it won't publish ads for mail-order handguns, astrologers or fortune tellers, private lotteries, and novelty real estate offers, like sales of "one square inch of Irish soil" on St. Patrick's Day. It also refuses any ad in a foreign language unless there is a translation, and any ad for condoms that does not explicitly recommend them as the best means of preventing the spread of venereal disease and AIDS. As of July 15, it refuses odorous perfume and cologne scent strips in the Sunday magazine. But cigarette ads sail by unchallenged.
Before the Times bought it in 1982, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune had been a leader in opposing the tobacco industry. It banned ads immediately after the 1964 surgeon general's report and even demanded that Family Weekly, a now-defunct competitor of Parade, print a special smokeless edition for the Sarasota market.
The Herald-Trib's zeal was due to one executive's personal encounter with cigarettes. In 1964, Publisher David Lindsay's father, his predecessor, was still walking around the building, speaking only in a whisper because of larynx cancer brought on by heavy smoking.
"There have been some protests from readers since the ban was lifted," says Waldo Proffitt Jr., who runs the paper's editorial page. "But we still editorialize against smoking and the companies that sell tobacco. Is there a conflict? I don't think so. I think the Lindsays, the whole family, was very much opposed to tobacco and did the right thing as a private company reflecting their values. And I think the New York Times did the right thing as a publicly held company concerned about its shareholders."
The drive for profits was largely responsible for the reversal of tobacco bans at the Boston Globe and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "After the surgeon general's report, we carried a number of news articles and editorials on the evils of smoking, and we thought we should be consistent on the other side of the house," says William Taylor, publisher of the Globe, which is in the process of being purchased by the New York Times Co. The Globe is the largest U.S. paper ever to ban tobacco ads.
"My father was the publisher then," Taylor recalls. "We banned cigarette ads in 1968 or '69, and there was a big furor. Parade had to print a smokeless version for us... In 1973 the paper went public, and that, along with the economic situation at the time, led us to consider reversing the ban, which we did the next year. I believe my father felt a responsibility to the shareholders and the board."
Then-Publisher and Editor Joseph Pulitzer Jr. banned tobacco ads at the Post-Dispatch for a short period around 1967 because of concerns over health problems related to smoking, recalls Robert Lasch, at the time the paper's editorial page editor and a strong proponent of banning such ads. He says a Washington lobbyist for the paper who had lost his wife to cancer also pushed Pulitzer for the ban. A few days after Pulitzer called a meeting with the two men and the business staff to present arguments for a ban, "he kicked [the tobacco advertisers] out," Lasch says. Soon after, however, "the hard times came and the business department needed more revenue, so they talked him into lifting it."
Four other papers that have reversed tobacco bans – the New Castle News in 1991, the West Central Tribune in Wallmar, Minnesota, in 1982, the Geneva Finger Lakes Times in Upstate New York in 1990, and the Morristown Daily Record in New Jersey, in 1987 – are smaller, ranging from the Tribune's circulation of 17,000 to the Record's 60,000. In each case, the reversal came after the paper was sold.
Refusing certain ads for moral reasons is about as old as the mass circulation press. When Horace Greeley founded the New York Tribune in the 1840s he refused to take ads from Madame Costello and Madame Restell, two high-profile Manhattan society "female physicians" who were known by most to be abortionists. Greeley not only refused their ads, he trumpeted his decision – thereby enhancing the credibility of his paper vis-a-vis the rest of the penny press.
Today, however, most news managers see little credibility to be gained by banning cigarette ads. For that to change, tobacco opponents will have to change their tactics.
Meanwhile, there is legislation pending on Capitol Hill that would place tighter restrictions on the tobacco industry. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced a bill last March that would cut tobacco companies' tax deductions for advertising from 100 percent to 50 percent. The additional tax revenue would be used by the government for anti-smoking campaigns. In the House, Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Mike Synar (D-Okla.) are working on a bill that would require cigarette-pack warning labels similar to those now in Canada, require tobacco companies to disclose cigarette ingredients, allow the government to regulate the ingredients, ban free samples, require warning labels on all promotional material (such as hats and belt buckles), and limit ads to "tombstone" announcements, which are similar to ads for stock offerings that have no pictures, only type.
Several countries have already passed laws similar to the one proposed by Waxman and Synar, and when Canada required tobacco companies to disclose their ingredients to the national government, two major U.S. tobacco companies stopped selling their products in that country. Waxman held hearings on a similar bill in 1990, but was not able to get it voted out of committee. He plans to hold hearings for the new version sometime this fall.
An aide to a Republican congressman says that although chances that anti-smoking legislation will pass improve every year, Waxman's bill probably will not go very far – especially if the government significantly increases the federal excise tax on cigarettes.
The American Civil Liberties Union has come out against both the Senate and House bills on First Amendment grounds. "Both bills are unconstitutional," says Robert Peck, ACLU legislative counsel. "The Harkin bill takes a legal product and puts it in a disfavored position. You could do it across the board, but by penalizing speech for a particular product you're violating the First Amendment.
"Waxman's tombstone ads discriminate on the basis of the contents of the message. Certain securities transactions are required to use tombstone ads because of the complex nature of the offerings and the sophistication of the ads' target audience. This isn't applicable to cigarettes, which is a legal product that is being presented in a non-misleading way. There is no complexity to whether you want to buy X brand over Y brand."
Regulating tobacco ads, or banning them outright, does appear to help cut down on the number of smokers. Canada introduced large tax increases on tobacco products and started phasing in its total ad ban in January 1989; tobacco sales fell by 7 percent that year. Since then the government has imposed a 3-cent-per-cigarette tax; by the end of last year sales had dropped by about 20 percent. Companies are still allowed to sponsor public events, but early next year they will have to print black-and-white "death notice" label warnings covering as much as 35 percent of the front and back panels of cigarette packs, and disclose "toxic constituents," such as carbon monoxide, nicotine and tar, on a side-panel label.
Canada's tax hike and ad ban were greeted enthusiastically by U.S. anti-smoking advocates, who hope the example set by Garfield Mahood's Non-Smokers' Rights Association will be matched here. NSRA briefed the Clinton transition team just before the inaugural, and the group has been working with several U.S. anti-smoking coalitions to devise a workable strategy. That's why the Seattle Times' decision looms large on the radar of the tobacco industry: The most striking aspect of the Canadian ban was the prominent role newspapers played in jump-starting the movement.
"Our first real break came in 1986 when Michael Davies of the Kingston Whig Standard..agreed not only to ban cigarette ads but to privately call on other publishers to do the same," Mahood says. "He then steered us to several who were thinking along the same lines... After 15 months, the largest circulation daily in Canada, the Toronto Star, had joined the ban, and by 1988, when the Tobacco Control Act was up for passage, many of the major newspapers in the country supported it."
Of course, the U.S. economy is several times larger than Canada's, and passage of a similar ad ban faces steeper obstacles on this side of the border. One major hurdle is money. Most of the established U.S. health groups compete for funding and have tended to shy away from direct confrontation with the tobacco industry. Mahood's group spent more than $1 million on its campaign and had the support of the Canadian health establishment. A similar effort here might cost 10 times that amount. "Our organization and the national health community had 10 full time lobbyists in Ottawa working to pass the Tobacco Control Act," Mahood says. Currently U.S. ad ban proponents have no full time lobbyist working on the issue.
John Banzhaf of ASH wants Congress to strengthen tobacco regulations and argues that the First Amendment does not preclude tighter controls. "Some distinctions between commercial and political speech have long been made in American law," he says.
Although Waxman's original bill died in committee, Banzhaf predicts that by the end of the decade there will be stronger government restrictions on tobacco ads – if not an outright ban. Certainly there are many signs of a heightened antagonism toward smokers, including the growing number of citywide smoking bans in restaurants and public buildings. But the prospects that Congress will ever pass Canadian-style restrictions, let alone an ad ban, don't look that promising at this point. And the question remains whether Congress should.
"If your social goal, because of the health care costs or whatever, is cut down on the number of smokers in your population, is there any evidence that banning [tobacco] advertising is more efficacious than other things?" asks Patrick Maines of the Media Institute. "What about prohibitive excise taxes? Why don't you make the product illegal? It simply shows no generosity of spirit to achieve this goal by attacking free speech."
Seattle Times President Sizemore, no friend of tobacco, also opposes any government ban on such ads. "This is our decision to make," he says. "Not theirs." l
Dan Bischoff, the former national affairs editor of the Village Voice, is a New York City-based writer. ###