If you’ve taken a few minutes out of your day to read this article, I’ll guess you are a smoker who wants to quit. You may have tried several times and failed but you still have hope that someday, somewhere, you’re going to find that thing that will make it possible. You’re also searching for information and help. I know exactly how you feel.
I was born at the end of the Baby Boom generation and started smoking when I was 16 because my girlfriends were doing it and I liked the buzz I got from the nicotine. I thought it made me look like a badass, too, for a girl. Also, I grew up in a smoking household and both my parents smoked since they were in their teens. Over twenty years later, I quit for good on May 4, 1997.
A lot happened between the time I started and when I quit, and it wasn’t just one big thing that really did it. If you’ll excuse the tired analogy--Life is kind of like a snowball rolling down a hill. As you go along, you pick up more knowledge and have new experiences and every now and then your growing snowball crashes into a tree. When it starts rolling again, it doesn’t look the same as it did before the crash.
I’d like to invite you to take a trip with me through cigarette history, advertising, and regulations so I can help you understand some of the things that got us here. I’ll sprinkle in a little of my personal experience that helped build up some big layers on my snowball.
We know how bad the health statistics are. We’ve all heard how dangerous smoking is to our health from the over 7,000 chemicals found in cigarette smoke . We know smoking causes over 480,000 deaths in the US each year (about 1 in every 5 people) and that it’s the leading cause of preventable disease . Yet, people continue to smoke. Yada, yada, yada.
Let’s take a look at this struggle from a different perspective. You may feel broken or like something’s wrong with you because you can’t quit, even in the face of all the evidence. Think about this; aside from struggling with the physical aspects of your addiction to nicotine, you’re also fighting marketing and deception from an all-powerful industry that has studied you for years like a rat in a cage and doesn’t give a shit about your health and doesn’t want you to quit. For them, it’s all about money.
I hope you learn some helpful things from this article and I hope it makes you angry. Angry enough to add to your commitment to quit smoking and not let the tobacco companies control you any longer.
The Early History of Cigarettes and Advertising in the United States
You’ve probably heard of Pocahontas, the Native American woman of the Powhatan tribe who is known for her association with the Jamestown, Virginia settlement in colonial times. But you may not know that in 1614, she married a Virginian named John Rolfe who grew the first documented crop of tobacco in 1612 .
The first tobacco (specifically snuff) factories were built in Virginia in the 1730s and the first known tobacco advertising was done in 1789 by the Lorillard Brothers in a local New York newspaper . By the late 1860s, New York City, Richmond, and Baltimore were home to cigarette factories including The Bedrossian Brothers, F.S. Kinney, William S. Kimball, and Allen & Gintner .
Even in these days before clinical studies were being conducted, the health effects of smoking (throat irritation, coughing, shortness of breath) were recognized in US society. However, there were no large-scale efforts to discourage citizens from starting to smoke and/or encouraging them to quit.
Although sales grew rapidly throughout the 1870s, cigarettes were still more of a novelty than a widely-used product . Data from the 1860 North Carolina census showed that only 6 of the 348 tobacco factories listed were processing tobacco for use in cigarettes. The rest were processing tobacco for cigars and chewing.
The temperance movement was in full swing in the late 1880s, creating and implementing anti-tobacco campaigns, particularly those aimed at young people . Groups argued that smoking was harmful during pregnancy, stunted the growth of children, and was addictive. The movement realized success for their efforts, including 26 states banning cigarette sales to minors by 1890. Further legislation banned the promotional activity of giving away free cigarettes, a common practice in the day.
The 1880s became a turning point in American cigarette history, thanks to James Buchanan Duke of Durham, North Carolina . Buck, as he was known, and his brothers grew up working in the tobacco business owned by his father. In 1881, Buck took a big gamble on what he saw as an opportunity to popularize cigarettes. He hired 125 workers skilled at hand-rolling cigarettes from New York and started churning out about 9.8 million cigarettes per year. A few years later, he began using a cigarette rolling machine designed by James Bonsack which allowed the company to skyrocket cigarette production to 744 million cigarettes by 1888.
But, Buck was just getting started . In 1889, he spent a historic $800,000 (equivalent to $20 million today) on billboard advertising for his cigarettes and assembled an army of sales people who fanned out across the US and abroad. His efforts were so successful that one year later, several competitors threw in the towel and merged with Buck and Duke tobacco to form The American Tobacco Company, also known as The Trust.
Buck continued his marketing stampede by inserting a small stiffener card into each cigarette pack. He cleverly leveraged the use of the card to his advertising campaign by printing (in color) the Duke company name and a picture of a bird, flag, baseball player, etc. along with educational and historical information . Each card was one in a series that customers were encouraged to collect. Their most successful collection was a series showcasing “actresses” in different poses and wearing what were considered at the time, very revealing costumes.
In addition to his marketing strategies, Buck dominated the cigarette market by using business tactics such as controlling tobacco leaf suppliers, the companies that made cigarette packages and foil, and the distributors . In the manufacturing industry, this is known as vertical integration and the practice was adopted decades later by the oil and railroad industries. By 1899, Buck had bought out several other tobacco companies including P. Lorillard, Liggett & Myers, and also assumed a two-thirds interest in the RJ Reynolds Company.
The 20th Century and Beyond
In 1909, The Trust was controlling nearly 90% of the American cigarette market . The demand for cigarettes which had been doubling every 5 years, tripled during World War I driven by free or reduced-price cigarettes that were distributed to US troops. It was at this time that public opinion began to turn away from worrying about the health effects of smoking to doing everything possible to contribute to the war effort and provide for soldiers who were facing danger and death every day (Figure 1). In fact, public sentiment was so strong that it was seen as unpatriotic to not give cigarettes to soldiers .
The post-World War I era saw millions of soldiers return home addicted to cigarettes. Also, as the war was going on, more civilians began to smoke back home, thanks to the advertising efforts of James Buchanan Duke and his competitors in the industry. This resulted in a greater acceptance of smoking in US society. Cigarette smokers made up a large percentage of the US adult population by the 1920s when the golden age of cigarette advertising began.
Fast forward to the present day and the historic demographic data reveal the harsh reality that cigarettes have left in America. The most recent data that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published on US smoking demographics is from 2016 . Although smoking declined from 20.9% of the population to 15.5% from 2005 to 2016, that 15.5% still represents about 37.8 million adults in the US and more than 267 billion cigarettes smoked. The majority of smokers are aged 25 to 44 years (17.6%), are non-Hispanic American Indians/Alaska Natives (31.8%), did not complete high school (24.1%), and live below the poverty level (25.3%).
As I mentioned earlier, the first known tobacco advertisement appeared in a local New York paper in 1789. Modern-day tobacco advertising has grown from that seed to representing about $9.5 billion on advertising in 2016.
Cigarette advertising really took off in the 1920s with the use of full-page color ads in magazines and newspapers with some featuring celebrity endorsements (Figure 2). Smoking was portrayed as glamorous and sophisticated with a healthy dose of sexuality thrown in (remember Duke’s series of lady tobacco cards?) (Figure 3).
My mother was born in 1920 and grew up in the elite social scene in Detroit in the 1930s. Her father was one of Henry Ford’s chief engineers who designed the Model T. As a result, her mother often entertained, and mom frequently received invitations to parties and other social events. Mom started smoking when she was 16 in full view of my grandmother who encouraged her to start. Smoking was all the fashion and rage when my mother was a teenager. Women as well as young girls wanted to be sophisticated, glamorous, and sexy like those portrayed in cigarette advertising. My grandmother told mom that smoking was a good way to meet boys at parties. “It was always a good excuse,” I remember her telling me “to walk up to a boy and ask if he had a cigarette.” My mother smoked her entire life except for a year or so when she became ill and was hospitalized for over a month. She contracted pneumonia and died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve in 1996.
Roaring and Coughing Through the 1920s
During the previous decade, smoking began to increase among women and became more socially acceptable. Women were heavily targeted in marketing campaigns by tobacco companies while they were fighting for equality and the right to vote, which was granted with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
Women were also targeted by advertising that encouraged them to “Reach for a Lucky” when they were tempted to eat. This way they would avoid “that future shadow” ---a silhouette showing the woman at a higher body weight, complete with a double chin (Figure 4) .
Through the 1920s and 1930s, cigarette marketing saw the emergence of the doctor-spokesman for tobacco advertising. Ads with physicians (most of them fictional) emblazoned the pages of newspapers and periodicals claiming that smoking wasn’t so bad (Figure 5). Tobacco companies also recruited athletes, opera singers, movie stars, and US senators as spokespersons for their brands. Even Santa got into the act (Figure 6). The 1930s also saw the birth of radio, which tobacco companies jumped on as a groundbreaking, attractive, and far-reaching advertising medium. But the real avalanche of advertising came in succeeding decades as the result of the technological advancements of radio and television.
Cigarette marketing and distribution during World War II went far beyond what was seen in World War I. Not only did soldiers receive cigarettes along with their C-rations, they were distributed in Veteran’s Administration (VA) hospitals . Cigarettes were also heavily marketed during the war using patriotic themes and images. Sales reached an all-time high during the war and soldiers were often loyal to the brand the smoked in the service when they returned to the states (Figure 7).
My father left Babson College in 1941 to enlist in the Marines after Pearl Harbor was attacked (he was later awarded an honorary degree along with other students who left school at the time to join the service). I remember when I was little, he would show me the camel on his pack of cigarettes, just like I learned what cows, pigs, cats, and elephants looked like from him reading bedtime stories and showing me the pictures. Years later, I learned during a conversation with him that he smoked Camels because they were the brand they gave Marines during the war. He quit several times during his life, sometimes for several years. He tried switching to a “light” brand later in life but it was too late. He was diagnosed with lung cancer and died in the VA hospital in April 1996.
Advertising in movie theaters during the 1940s and 1950s was crucial for tobacco companies to reach an even larger audience resulting from the golden age of film. One of the highlights of the era was the tobacco company Philip Morris’s use of the page boy mascot for their “Call for Philip Morris” advertising campaign (Figure 8). Also, the movie stars of the day smoked their brains out, often after being enticed by tobacco companies. The American Tobacco Company, for example, gave stars like Humphrey Bogart free cartons of Lucky Strike to smoke on screen and to show the package wherever possible during filming (Figure 9) .
The 1950s – The Decade of Television, Research, and Tobacco Fighting Back
It seems like nothing was sacred when it came to cigarette advertising on TV in the 1950s and 1960s. Even The Flintstones cartoon characters were adulterated to sell Winston cigarettes (Figure 10). This targeted marketing toward children was not unusual with other shows like The Beverly Hillbillies also advertising cigarettes. Cigarette companies also found their advertising niche on TV shows such as I’ve Got a Secret and To Tell the Truth .
In 1964, the tobacco companies created The Cigarette Advertising Code which prohibited them from marketing to children, although they have not always held true to the regulations. In fact, they removed most the enforcement provisions in the code when they revised it in 1990 .
Racial marketing also picked up speed in the 1950s with cigarette companies targeting menthol cigarettes toward African American communities. Big tobacco jumped at the chance to advertise in new African American magazines and newspapers that were coming on the scene in the civil rights era. Internal documents circulated within tobacco companies revealed their less-than-benevolent reasons for supporting the civil rights movement at the time. Their true intentions were:
"…to increase African American tobacco use, to use African Americans as a frontline force to defend industry policy positions, and to defuse tobacco control efforts" .
This was also the decade when researchers started seriously studying the health effects of smoking. As frightening evidence was brought to light, the tobacco companies were having none of it and fought tooth and nail to change public opinion.
The Tobacco Industry Fights Back – “…work to erode, confuse, and condemn…”
In the 1950s, the peer-reviewed scientific literature was bulging with new studies documenting the harmful effects of smoking, including the ground-breaking work done in 1956 by Doll and Hill which identified a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. The tobacco industry was filled with worry and anxiety at the thought of research findings undoing the empire that they had established and run for over half a century. They kept their concern well-hidden, however, as evidenced by their non-stop (actually accelerated) marketing efforts to dispel people’s fears about smoking (Figures 11 and 12).
A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Public Health states that beginning in the 1950s, the tobacco industry “…used sophisticated public relations approaches to undermine and distort the emerging science,” and “…would work to erode, confuse, and condemn the very science that now threatened to destroy its prized, highly popular, and exclusive product.” Note the phrasing “beginning in the 1950s.” This subversive behavior is still going on.
According to the study, the strategy the tobacco companies use is to “produce scientific uncertainty” by creating perceived conflicts of interest between researchers and the tobacco industry . This causes the public to question the truth of the researcher’s claims about the effects of smoking. It all comes down to a form of social engineering called “engineering of consent.” This means that when people buy a particular product (like cigarettes) they are giving their consent to the “underlying meaning-centered campaigns.” In other words, the tobacco industry’s strategy is to shift the blame for any ill effects of smoking to the smokers themselves. To my mind, this is an unethical attempt at some sort of twisted Libertarian philosophy. Sure, we’re all responsible for our own behavior, but how are people supposed to make the best decisions for themselves when the information they receive is undermined and influenced by propaganda campaigns?
You can read an excellent detailed summary of the public relations and marketing plan devised and used by the tobacco industry in the 1950s in the American Journal of Public Health article written by Allen M. Brandt, PhD . Dr. Brandt is a Professor of History of Medicine at Harvard and was the expert witness in the 2004 case of the US Department of Justice v Philip Morris, et. al when the tobacco industry was found guilty of violating fraud and racketeering statutes for over 50 years.
Two important highlights of the tobacco industry’s attempts to undermine the science of smoking research were the creation of The Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) and the Tobacco Institute .
The TIRC began operating in 1953 and represented the banding together of tobacco companies to take control of the public discussions on smoking research . The main focus of the committee was to convince the public that they were dedicated to their well-being (yeah, right). Internal documents show that the TIRC had absolutely no interest in answering any scientific questions about smoking. It existed for the main purpose of driving public opinion. Its secondary function was to disguise itself as a legitimate research entity by securing the cooperation of doctors and scientists who just happened to be smokers and/or had publicly expressed skepticism about the findings of smoking research. The TIRC funded their research if they knew the results would be friendly to their cause.
The goodwill propaganda campaign began in 1954 when the TIRC ran ads in over 400 US newspapers, pledging to smokers that they took the responsibility for people’s health seriously and they would, “…cooperate closely with those whose task it is to safeguard the public health” . The third pledge they made to smokers was that their products would not injure them.
Also, an early press release from TIRC announcing the appointment of their chairman (the retired CEO of Brown & Williamson…imagine that) reminded the public of 3 “essential points.” 
1. There is no scientific proof of a link between smoking and cancer.
2. Medical research points to many possible causes of cancer.
3. The millions of people who derive pleasure and satisfaction from smoking can be reassured that every scientific means will be used to get all the facts as soon as possible.
Feel deceived yet? But wait, there’s more!
Having succeeded in subverting tobacco research findings and sowing doubt in people’s minds, the industry formed another organization in 1958, one dedicated to lobbying for their public relations and political needs. The Tobacco Institute quickly became one of the most powerful and effective lobbying entities in Washington, DC . The lobby used new and more aggressive approaches to control the political and regulatory environments that would affect the tobacco industry. Much of the lobby’s work centered on controlling and manipulating congressional representatives in tobacco-growing states.
In addition to lobbying, some of the activities of The Tobacco Institute included conducting surveys on public attitudes toward smoking, issuing pamphlets for distribution to smokers and non-smokers (telling smokers how to handle non-smokers and asking non-smokers to be tolerant of smoking as a “personal choice”), secretly paying for articles to be published in major national magazines, and authoring several white papers disputing the scientific findings of the effects of smoking on health.
The Tobacco Institute would play the key role in the industry’s response to the Surgeon General’s report on the relationship between smoking and health which would come out in 1964.
Dr. Brandt sums up the twisted brilliance of creating the TIRC and the Tobacco Institute in his article when he says, “It is also critical to note that the lobbying and public relations efforts of the Tobacco Institute rested fundamentally on the claims of the scientific doubt and uncertainty generated by the TIRC.” 
Despite denials of the detrimental effects of smoking from the tobacco industry, companies pressed ahead and began marketing filtered cigarettes and brands that were “light” and “low tar.”  Clearly, this was an effort to calm any lingering fears the public may have had about smoking based on the scientific studies (Figure 13).
In 1954, one of the most iconic figures in the history of cigarette advertising was debuted by Philip Morris---The Marlboro Man. He was conceived to drive sales of filtered cigarettes among male smokers because up until that time, filtered cigarettes were considered to be feminine (Figure 14). Philip Morris also wanted to promote filtered cigarettes to the general public by implying they were safer than non-filters.
The 1960s – Behold, the Surgeon General
According to Gallup polls, about 40% of American adults smoked cigarettes throughout the 1960s.
In 1964 the US Surgeon General Luther L. Terry and his Advisory Committee on Smoking and Health declared cigarette smoking a health hazard. The report titled Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States was the culmination of the review of over 7,000 scientific papers and article. There was also significant pressure applied to the Surgeon General’s office from public health organizations such as the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association.
Although other countries had previously made such declarations about smoking, this report was considered monumental because it came from a US official and its impact on the tobacco industry and people’s perceptions of smoking were lasting and felt around the world.
All the statistics in the report are scary, but very striking is that “cigarette smokers had a seventy percent increase in age-corrected mortality rate.”  This means that 70% of smokers died from causes related to smoking. Among the other findings were smoking was correlated with heart disease, emphysema, and low birth weights for babies with mothers who smoked. Also, a causative link was found between cigarette smoking and a 10 to 20-fold increase in lung cancer.
The Surgeon General’s mandate was followed in 1966 by the first precautionary statement printed on cigarette packages; CAUTION: CIGARETTE SMOKING MAY BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR HEALTH. Under the Public Health Smoking Act of 1969, the warning was changed to; WARNING: THE SURGEON GENERAL HAS DETERMINED THAT CIGARETTE SMOKING IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH .
Not surprisingly, none of these ground-breaking events deterred the efforts of the tobacco industry to market and sell their products.
In 1966, the TIRC changed its name to the Council for Tobacco Research to try and distance itself from the implied connection to the tobacco industry. However, the connection became stronger and more strategic than ever as the Council brought in a fleet of lawyers (not more scientists) who directed which research projects would be funded. As you would expect, the Council funded research that was helpful to their cause and at the same time provided science professionals who would testify and present the tobacco industry point of view before Congress.
To continue spreading doubt about research and the health effects of smoking, The Tobacco Institute created the “Truth Squad” in 1968 which was composed of “spokespersons” from the Institute . The public relations professionals fanned out all over the country going on radio and TV and even making live appearances to preach the “other side” of what they dubbed the “Cigarette Controversy (Figure 14).”
From the 1970s Through the 2000s
For the last three decades of the 20th century, the battle between cigarette advertising and regulations can be described as trying to walk up an escalator that’s going down.
The 1970s saw the end of cigarette commercials on TV and radio, only to have the tobacco companies switch to sponsoring popular sporting events like the Virginia Slims tennis tournaments and Winston Cup NASCAR racing . And in 1987, Joe Camel was rolled out by RJ Reynolds as the next cigarette marketing icon, this time a cartoon character targeted at children.
In the early 1980s, Philip Morris started meticulous experiments in their labs aimed at making new forms of nicotine that were more addictive and testing the effects of nicotine on lab animals. The researchers developed the synthetic nicotine replacement they were looking for but the first results of the animal testing with regular nicotine caused the lab to be shut down. As it turned out, the animals developed a tolerance for nicotine over time which is a key indicator used for identifying addictive substances (this would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing).
By far the biggest blow dealt to tobacco advertising was from a settlement made by the major companies with 46 US states (4 states settled separately) in 1998 known as the Master Settlement Agreement. Banned were advertisements on transit lines, billboards, cartoons, paid product placements in movies and TV, tobacco sponsorships of concerts and events, and any tobacco marketing or advertising aimed at people under the age of 18.
Despite all the regulation over the years, cigarette companies still do strategic marketing and rake in huge profits every year. The areas with little regulation which they exploit now are what are called point-of-sale locations in grocery stores, convenience stores, pharmacies, and gas stations. They also pump money into their product displays you see behind checkout counters and discount programs for cigarettes (remember earlier I mentioned that most smokers live below the poverty level?). In 2017, the top tobacco companies’ combined marketing budget was about $8.49 billion, and they spent about 96% of it on point-of-sale marketing efforts.
Once you stand back and take a look at what you’ve been up against all these years, please believe that you are not faulty or broken because you’re having a hard time quitting smoking. If you didn’t believe that when you started reading this article, I hope you do now. And like I said at the beginning, I hope you’re angry. Anger can be a strong motivator for good things to happen if you channel it properly.
Personally, it really ate at me when I realized what the tobacco companies were doing to people and how they were doing it. Marketing directly to vulnerable populations, the poor, kids, and all the time concealing information and lying about the effects of nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes. This simmered like a pot of hot water in the back of my mind for years. When I dedicated myself to quitting for good in 1997, I took pride in sticking it to the tobacco companies who didn’t care about my health and only wanted my money. I imagined their million dollar yachts going up in flames instead of my hard earned money. Taking control of your mind and your health is a feeling you will find deliciously satisfying.Your mind and body belong to you, not the tobacco companies.
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