Letter From the Editor

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A few facts from the tobacco file. Not a single cigarette commercial has been shown on television in this country in almost 30 years. As early as 1964, tobacco companies announced an industry advertising code that banned endorsements by entertainment and sports celebrities, and that also outlawed ads with "virility" themes and health claims. In the early '70s, tobacco companies consented to putting warning labels on ads and packaging. In 1997, they agreed to a broad package of additional measures, among them: no outdoor advertising within a thousand feet of schools and playgrounds, no advertising on the Internet, no product placement in movies, TV shows and videogames.

Has all this capitulation, much of it pre-emptive, resulted in happiness and cheer among the tobacco industry's critics? Not on your life. Even if tobacco company executives burned all their factories to the ground and committed hara kiri on national television, some people would mutter that Big Tobacco wasn't doing enough to stop kids from lighting up. Nothing cigarette makers do is ever enough. When they make commercials telling children smoking isn't cool, the usual chorus of public health bullies is quick to condemn such spots as insincere and feeble. When R.J. Reynolds retires Joe Camel after much public pressure, the anti-smoking mob moves on to Philip Morris, charging that the Marlboro Man, too -- indeed, all western imagery used by the company -- insidiously targets kids.

That, believe it or not, is the latest accusation leveled at Philip Morris in an open letter by the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, signed by the American Cancer Society, the Children's Defend Fund, and some 30 other groups. The cowboy has to go, warns the letter, as do pictures of prairies, herds, mountains and other shots of the mythical American West. Hmm. So that's why kids try cigarettes: all those Gunsmoke reruns!

If kids love western images and nature, that's news to all parents whose teens divide their time between MTV and the local mall. I guess those Marilyn Manson posters in kids' bedrooms will be coming down soon, in favor of some really bitchin' Ansel Adams shots.

Suppose Philip Morris caved in and spiked its `Marlboro Country' advertising (probably the century's most brilliant branding campaign). Suppose the cigarette maker was finally so boxed in by self-imposed and regulatory restrictions that it could only show the Marlboro logo, and nothing else. Would that finally silence its critics? Never. The public health police would find a way to allege that the colors white and red appealed greatly and especially to teenagers.

Of course, it's impossible to accuse Big Tobacco's critics of being intellectually dishonest without pointing out that cigarette makers also have a history of shameful fact-futzing and outright mendacity. So why don't both parties cut the crap and fess up?

I'd like to see tobacco companies state that, yes, there is a clear-as-day link between cigarettes and a range of deadly diseases. In other words, its products kill (as do, incidentally, any number of other things we hold dear, such as cars and fatty foods). In return, I'd like to see the public health bullies admit that their fight is no longer about protecting the public, but about stifling a whole industry's First Amendment rights, and ultimately, about annihilating a sworn enemy, no prisoners taken.

It won't bring about Peace on Earth, but a measure of truth, or Truth , is surely enough reward.