Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

The Morality of Marketing the Marlboro Man

By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez

Images of sleek, young bodies, taut and tanned, engaged in heroic athletic feats illuminate the page on which the words "Performance Counts" loom large. But appearing in a small box in the right-hand corner of the page is the Surgeon General's warning: "Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy."

Every year 350,000 people die from tobacco-related illnesses. Smoking is directly responsible for 85% of all deaths from lung cancer. The Surgeon General has declared smoking the chief avoidable cause of death in our society. Not only are cigarettes one of the most lethal products around, but also one of the most addictive. According to a recent report from the Surgeon General, the nicotine contained in cigarettes is as addictive as heroin and cocaine.

Yet, this lethal product which contains a very powerful addictive drug can be legally bought and sold. And, along with soap and margarine, it is promoted through advertisements in the popular media. In 1971, cigarette ads were banned from the TV screen and radio waves, but recent figures show that the tobacco industry continues to spend over $2 billion every year promoting cigarettes through other means, such as magazines, newspapers and billboards. During the next Congress, legislators will be asked to pass a law that would forbid all cigarette advertising in magazines and newspapers. The tobacco industry and its advertisers have attacked the proposal as violating fundamental moral rights. Does society have a right to ban the advertising of cigarettes?

Anti-smoking activists argue that everyone has a basic right to freedom of expression, but only insofar as no harm comes to others as a result. When freedom of expression results in harm to others, society is morally obligated to restrict this freedom. Cigarette advertising, one form of free speech, causes grave harm. Of twelve published studies that have examined the effect of cigarette advertising, nine have shown that as cigarette ads increase, so too does smoking. And, smoking now accounts for at least 350,000 tobacco-related deaths each year. The costs of smoking to society as a whole are also staggering. According to a recent government report, cigarette smoking is responsible for an estimated $23 billion in health care costs annually and over $30 billion in lost productivity. Furthermore, cigarettes are the leading cause of residential fires and fire deaths in this nation. Society is morally obligated to ban the promotion of a product linked to so much suffering and devastation and that places such a drain on society's resources.

Those opposed to the promotion of cigarettes also argue that society has a duty to protect the right of individuals not to be deceived or manipulated. And, according to Joe Tye, a staunch critic of the tobacco industry, "No advertising is more deceptive than that used to sell cigarettes. Images of independence are used to sell a product that creates profound dependence. Images of health and vitality are used to sell a product that causes disease and suffering. Images of life are used to sell a product that causes death."

Critics argue that cigarette advertisements also rely almost exclusively on psychological manipulation. Alluring images of power, prestige, glamour, success, vitality and sex appeal are held before the public's eye, creating a positive association between "the good life" and smoking. Such ads bypass conscious reasoning. They unconsciously arouse in a person a powerful desire that is not rationally weighed against one's own best interests.

Society's obligation to ban such deceptive and manipulative practices becomes all the more compelling when such practices are used to prey on minors. And young people are, in fact, the target of the tobacco industry's advertising campaigns. To maintain sales, the tobacco industry must recruit more than 2 million people every year to replace those who die and those who quit smoking. Since 90% of beginning smokers are children or teenagers, this means that the industry must entice at least 5000 youngsters daily to take up smoking. So it's to the young that the industry directs its pitch, appealing to their lifestyles and aspirations. Closeups of muscular surfers and slender, sexy women promise the shy teenager popularity and sex appeal. Shots of hang-gliders, mountain climbers, ski racers and aerobic dancers promise adventure or athletic prowess. Perhaps the most sinister of the ads is that which reads: "If you're not an adult, don't smoke." What better way to manipulate an adolescent into smoking? Society has a moral duty to ban such brainwashing of unwilling, unsuspecting consumers into taking up a habit that will eventually kill them, or so critics claim.

Opposing restrictions on cigarette ads are those who agree that society has a right to restrict freedom of expression when the exercise of this freedom causes harm to others. But, they argue, while cigarettes themselves may be harmful, cigarette advertising is not. First, contrary to the critics' claims, ads for cigarettes do not cause people to smoke, just as ads for soap don't cause people to bathe. People take up smoking for a variety of reasons. For teenagers, it's often peer pressure or imitating adults that factor in as the principal reason. In one five nation study, only 1% of the seven to fifteen-year-olds interviewed mentioned advertising as the most important reason they started smoking. At most, cigarette ads function to persuade people who already smoke to switch brands.

Second, the charge that cigarette ads intentionally deceive consumers is unjustified. The images portrayed in cigarette ads are realistic ones. There are, in fact, skiers, tennis players and aerobic dancers who smoke. Furthermore, how can cigarette ads be accused of hiding the truth with the Surgeon General's warning prominently stamped across each and every ad?

Nor can cigarette ads be banned on the grounds that they manipulate consumers. The tobacco industry's advertising ploys are no different from any other industry's techniques to promote its products. Consumers are well acquainted with the rules of the game in advertising. People should be expected to take care of themselves whether they are reading an ad for cigarettes or passing by an enticing display in a department store.

Nor can it be said that the industry aims its ads at minors. The R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company has even gone as far as running full-page ads in national magazines asserting, "We don't advertise to children," along with ads advising young people not to smoke. Unless it can be factually demonstrated that cigarette advertisements cause direct harm to others, society has no right to impose any further restrictions on ads.

Those opposed to banning cigarette ads also point out that respect for individual freedom demands that consumer preferences and choices be respected. Society has no right to impose its preferences on its members by limiting their exposure to products that are legally bought and sold. While society may act as a critic of consumer choice, it has no right, and certainly no duty, to limit that choice, and banning cigarettes ads would do just that.

Finally, tobacco supporters claim that banning cigarette ads would deliver few benefits, while producing great harm. There is no evidence that banning cigarette ads would stop people from smoking. In five countries where cigarette ads have been banned, per capita consumption of cigarettes has risen, not decreased.

While tobacco advertising bans would fail to deliver the benefits its supporters hope forÑthe reduction of smokingÑthey would, without a doubt, produce great harm. First, banning cigarettes ads would deprive consumers of valuable information. Such ads relay important information on the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes which some smokers use in their decisions to switch brands. Second, any further encroachment on the freedom to advertise cigarettes would place all freedom of expression and freedom of individual choice in serious jeopardy. If society declares a ban on ads for cigarettes, which may be harmful, but which are legal to purchase and use, what will prevent it from banning the promotion of countless other products known to be harmful in some way? Will ads for butter and cheese be banned because they contain large amounts of cholesterol? Such practices cannot be tolerated in a society that prides itself on freedom.

Deciding whether society should pass a sentence on selling smoke will require us to choose between an obligation to do all we can to prevent harm and suffering, and the value we place on freedom of expression and freedom of choice.

For further reading:

J. J. Boddewyn "Smoking Ads Don't Get People Hooked," The Wall Street Journal (October 21, 1986).

Ken Cummins, Selling Smoke: Cigarette Advertising and Public Health (Washington, D.C.: American Public Health Association, 1987).

David Owen, "The Cigarette Companies: How They Get Away With Murder, Part II," Washington Monthly, Vol. 17 (March 1985), pp. 48-54.

The Progressive, "Smoke Signals, Too, Are a Form of Free Speech," (September 1986).

Tobacco and Youth Reporter, published by STAT (Stop Teenage Addiction to Tobacco), P.O. Box 50039, Palo Alto, CA 94303.

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