By SAPNA MAHESHWARI
November 24, 2017
The biggest tobacco companies in the United States will start running prime-time television commercials and full-page ads in national newspapers on Sunday — but the campaign is unlikely to spur enthusiasm for their products.
“More people,” one ad says, “die every year from smoking than murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol, combined.” Another reads: “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction.”
Each ad starts by noting that Altria, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard and Philip Morris USA were ordered to make the statements by a federal court.
The messages stem from a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department in 1999. As part of the 2006 ruling in the suit, which sought to punish cigarette makers for decades of deceiving the public about the dangers of their product, the companies were ordered to disseminate “corrective statements” centered on the health risks and addictive nature of smoking. But until now, they resisted through appeals and by wrangling over wording.
“It’s both an important victory and a frustrating one,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who has worked on the case since 1999. The tobacco companies “have spent millions of dollars and a decade of time resisting a court order that simply requires them to publish truthful facts about their products and their behavior,” he said.
Mr. Myers said the ads would be less effective than originally intended because fewer people read newspapers and watch television today. The tobacco companies, he said, also negotiated to not include the phrase “here’s the truth” in the ads.
Altria, which owns Philip Morris USA, the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, declined to comment beyond an Oct. 2 release about the ads, which said it was working to make its business practices more responsible. Murray Garnick, the company’s general counsel, said in the statement that “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.”
R. J. Reynolds, which is part of British American Tobacco with Lorillard, said in an email that the company was “fully complying with its obligations under the court order.”
The initial order came from a 1,600-page civil racketeering judgment from Judge Gladys Kessler that excoriated the tobacco industry for lying about and misrepresenting its products beginning in the 1950s. She said they had sought “to make money with little, if any, regard for individual illness and suffering, soaring health costs or the integrity of the legal system.”
The corrective statements were meant to appear in places that tobacco companies had “historically used to promulgate false smoking and health messages.” In addition to the TV and newspaper ads, there will be messaging on the packs themselves and on the company’s websites, though details are still being worked out.
“I certainly don’t think that what we have finally ended up with is really in the spirit of the original ruling,” said Ruth Malone, a professor of nursing and public health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, who consulted for the Justice Department in the case.
“The original ruling was so that the American public would understand that they had been deceived through multiple means about whether smoking caused disease, whether smoking killed people, whether secondhand smoke caused disease, whether nicotine was addictive,” she said.
Proposed versions of the ads in 2011 appeared tougher. One said: “We told Congress under oath that we believed nicotine is not addictive. We told you that smoking is not an addiction and all it takes to quit is willpower. Here’s the truth: Smoking is very addictive. And it’s not easy to quit. We manipulated cigarettes to make them more addictive.”
Tobacco companies argued that the initially proposed statements were “forced public confessions” designed to “shame and humiliate them.” They also said the statements were unnecessary after a 2009 law gave the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products.
The campaign that will begin on Sunday includes five different ads with statements divided by category, such as the “manipulation of cigarette design and composition to ensure optimum nicotine delivery” and “adverse health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke.” Other statements include “Secondhand smoke causes lung cancer and coronary heart disease in adults who do not smoke” and “Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day.”
Full-page ads will run online and in the Sunday issues of more than 40 newspapers, including The New York Times, on five separate days. There are also five versions of the commercials, which will run for a year on CBS, ABC and NBC in the evenings on Monday through Thursday. The spots feature a voice reading a statement as the text appears on the screen.
Altria said in its most recent annual filing that it expected actions related to the order to cost $31 million.
American cigarette manufacturers spent more than $8 billion on advertising and promotional expenses in 2014, according to the Federal Trade Commission, though the vast majority of that was through price discounts. That year, they spent $50 million on magazine ads, while newspaper spending was too limited to report. The companies are not allowed to advertise on broadcast TV.
In October, the F.D.A. expanded its public education campaign to emphasize the harmful effects of nicotine on the developing brain. The agency will follow that with ads aimed at discouraging young people from using e-cigarettes. About 15 percent of adults in the United States smoked cigarettes in 2015, compared with 43 percent in 1965, government figures show.
And while the tobacco industry has moved to create safer products, Dr. Malone said the public should understand that the companies would rather not be running the corrective statements campaign.
“The only reason they’re finally printing and broadcasting all of this is because they were forced to do so by a judge that found them guilty of racketeering,” Dr. Malone said. “Otherwise, this would still be going on.”