Tobacco Companies Kill Their Best Customers. Hill & Knowlton Helped.

November 15, 2010

I hate smoking, I hate tobacco companies, and I find smokers generally disgusting. So when I learned a few days ago that the F.D.A. unveiled 36 proposed warning labels for cigarette packages, including corpses in caskets, a mother blowing smoke on her baby, and a man smoking through a tracheotomy hole in his throat, I felt compelled to send a thank you note to the government agency. As I was researching tobacco, I found a few interesting articles about how these giant purveyors of death had been able to operate with relative immunity for so long. I also discovered that the fine folks at Hill & Knowlton helped major tobacco polish their turd by coming up with a creative group called The Tobacco Industry Research Committee. The group’s purpose was to find and promote alternative reasons why tobacco smokers frequently got lung cancer other than the obvious truth. The committee operated from the 1950’s to 1999. Old news? Not really. Why? Because the numbers of smokers in this country remain high and children of smokers are more likely to smoke. So it’s easy to connect the dots between today’s smokers and the PR/advertising efforts of yesteryear. But this is a PR blog – why talk about tobacco? Because unlike others in the PR industry who want to chat only about the power of social media, or how their client was featured on WXYZ, I think it’s important to look at the, sometimes, ugly underbelly of what PR can accomplish. After all, If I don’t write about it who will – Hill & Knowlton?

Every year nearly half a million people die from smoking related health problems, and every day 4,000 people try smoking for the first time. The cost to treat smoking related illnesses? $96 billion per year. The F.D.A. is using the power of a law passed last year to regulate tobacco products for the first time. And check out what this poor bastard from the makers of USA Gold cigarettes had to say about the new proposed labels: “The use of graphic warnings makes no contribution to the awareness of these risks and serves only to stigmatize smokers and denormalize smoking.”  Really Anthony Hemsley, VP Corporate and Government Affairs? How much does a soul go for these days? I hope you got at least fair market value for yours.

Each day we make choices in the PR industry – many of which are based on ethics: is what I’m saying true? will my words harm? am I being transparent? So how is it that a PR firm or individual could feel okay about representing a product that kills not only the user, but millions of innocent bystanders? I don’t get it. If the good ol boys from Philip Morris International came knocking on BPR’s door and offered us $1 billion to help them promote a new cigarette I wouldn’t even open the door. How could anyone?

Sadly as it turns out there is a strong connection between PR and cigarette smoking. I’ll save you the long history lesson but the highlights are this: Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew and the founding Father of Public Relations, used his uncle’s teachings on human beings to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by linking mass produced goods to their unconscious desires. In the 1920s, working for the American Tobacco Company, he sent a group of young models to march in the New York City Easter parade. He then told the press that a group of women’s rights marchers would light “Torches of Freedom.“ On his signal the models lit Lucky Strike cigarettes in front of the waiting photographers. The New York Times (April 1, 1929) printed “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of Freedom.” This helped break the taboo against women smoking in public.Â

The new graphic warnings must be on all cigarettes for sale in the USA by October 22, 2012. For a great look at the topic of PR and Tobacco check out the brilliant piece by one of my favorite NO BS authors John C. Stauber, Smoke and Mirrors: How Tobacco and PR Grew Up Together


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