Tobacco advertising is returning to broadcast television and newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun, but not to promote any products. They will warn of the dangers of smoking.
The ads that begin Sunday and run for a year are a court-ordered response to a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department dating back to 1999 against big tobacco manufacturers. The court found the companies had violated civil racketeering laws by covering up the negative health effects of smoking, and in 2006 those companies were ordered to take “corrective” steps including placing the ads as well as putting stronger warnings on packaging.
Health advocacy and anti-smoking groups say the ads scheduled to run in more than 45 newspapers and major broadcast networks are welcomed, though are not nearly enough to erase the decades of harm caused by tobacco.
“It’s certainly been a long-time coming,” said Robin Koval, president and CEO of the anti-smoking advocacy group Truth Initiative. “On the somewhat less positive side, over the many years this has gone on, this generation of people has grown up and the media landscape has changed considerably. Places they are running the ads are no longer the places you would go to get a message out to young people, which is critical.”
Negotiations over the content of the ads has been ongoing since 2006 with tobacco companies, including Lorillard and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., which merged in 2015, and Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris USA. Groups such as Truth Initiative say over that time young people have turned their attention to digital platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook, which were left out of the agreement.
Among other messages about the dangers of secondhand smoke and so-called low-tar cigarettes, the ads say tobacco kills 1,200 people every day and that more people die of smoking than murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes and alcohol combined.The ads also note that smoking causes heart disease, emphysema, acute myeloid leukemia and cancer and reduces fertility and low birth weight in newborns.
Officials from the tobacco companies say the way cigarettes are manufactured, marketed and sold has changed significantly since the lawsuit was filed. That means there are now far more limits on advertising and merchandise using characters, which advocates argued appealed to those under 18, when most people begin smoking.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also recently moved to regulate nicotine to levels that are not addictive, which advocates say is likely to be far more helpful than the ads to reduce smoking.
“This industry has changed dramatically over the last 20 years, including becoming regulated by the FDA, which we supported,” said a written statement from Murray Garnick, executive vice president and general counsel of Altria, which makes the nation’s top selling cigarette brand Marlboro, among others.
“We’re focused on the future and, with FDA in place, working to develop less risky tobacco products,” he said. “We remain committed to aligning our business practices with society’s expectations of a responsible company. This includes communicating openly about the health effects of our products, continuing to support cessation efforts, helping reduce underage tobacco use and developing potentially reduced-risk products.”
In a statement, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said it would meet its obligations under this order.
“We are working to address and resolve many of the controversial issues relating to the use of tobacco,” the statement said. “The tobacco industry today 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, including R.J. Reynolds, began a journey to transform the tobacco industry. Today, the industry is working with FDA, other regulators and some in the public health community to create a regulated marketplace that encourages innovation while reducing the harm from smoking.”
Smoking rates generally have trended down among adults and minors, but one in five U.S. adults still used tobacco products in 2015, according to a report released earlier this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FDA’s center for Tobacco Products. That’s 49 million tobacco users, mostly smokers.
Smoking kills an estimated 480,000 Americans annually and about 16 million Americans suffer from a smoking-related illness, the agencies found.
Surveys showed smoking rates were higher among less educated and lower income people and males. Adults age 25 to 44 smoked more than older adults. Rates were also higher for those with serious psychological distress or were disabled or uninsured or insured through Medicaid.
“Too many Americans are harmed by cigarette smoking, which is the nation’s leading preventable cause of death and disease,” said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, CDC director, in a statement when the report was released. “CDC will continue to use proven strategies to help smokers quit and to prevent children from using any tobacco products.”