Smoke and mirrors

The tobacco-industry settlement may ban the icons and images that make cigarettes cool. But it's the drug they contain that keeps the customers coming back.


“in essence,” explained Florida Attorney General Robert Butterworth in a strange burst of public-health lyricism, “the Marlboro Man will be riding into the sunset on Joe Camel.”

It’s a comforting image: Joe Camel, the cartoon trickster who’s lured a generation of youngsters to long and expensive deaths, will be tamed at last. But the $370 billion tobacco settlement announced last Friday is — like Camels themselves — a triumph of packaging over substance. More specifically, the deal is a public-relations triumph but a real-world disaster because it focuses on packaging, not substance.

True, to rescue itself from public opprobrium, Food and Drug Administration regulation and the prospect of nearly endless litigation, the tobacco industry has made some real-world concessions. In return for immunity from class-action and other lawsuits, the industry has agreed to pay out nearly $370 billion over a quarter of a century; some of this money will go to fund health insurance for children; some $60 billion will go into a fund as “punishment for the industry’s past actions.”

Of course, proponents of the agreement will argue, there’s more to it than money. In what a number of observers are hailing as the agreement’s most important “victory,” the industry has agreed to a number of restrictions on advertising and marketing of its noxious products. Marc Fisher and John Schwartz of the Washington Post argue that the “deal’s most audacious aim is to freeze and eventually supplant Americans’ deep cultural affinity for tobacco, to so stigmatize the cigarette that, 500 years after European explorers picked up the habit from American Indians, the allure of smoke would no longer symbolize individualism, sophistication and romance.”

To this end, the deal promises big changes in the advertising landscape. No more cartoon characters hawking smokes; no more Marlboro men riding the ranges. No more sports sponsorships, no more product placement in Hollywood blockbusters, no more billboards. Bigger and badder warning labels and $500 million a year for a just-say-no-to-smoking ad blitz.

Big deal. The ad industry has gotten around advertising restrictions before, and they’ll do it again. And in a culture given over to permanent nostalgia, it takes some time for old ads to clear out of our brains. Tune in to “Rosie O’Donnell” any day of the week and you’ll find Rosie happily belting out the ad jingles from two decades ago. It will be a long while before Joe Camel fades from our collective unconscious.

But more to the point, the tenacious power of the tobacco industry isn’t the result of advertising — it comes from nicotine itself.

You have to give advertising some credit: It has helped to transform what might otherwise seem a strange and nasty habit — the deliberate inhalation of noxious fumes, followed by a bit of littering — into something with a certain glamorous allure. This little bit of glamour — heightened by the cigarette’s bad-boy (and bad-girl) image in popular culture, may be enough of a lure to get a certain number of new smokers hooked every year. But ads aren’t the only reason young people light up, and restrictions on ads often prove ineffective. In Canada, the percentage of smokers has actually increased slightly in the eight years since the country instituted a cigarette ad ban.

Anyway, for the most part, advertising is beside the point. The tobacco industry doesn’t make its money on casual cigarette experimenters; it makes its money servicing the needs of its repeat customers. And what keeps them coming back is not Joe Camel or the Marlboro Man, but nicotine addiction. As Brown & Williamson’s chief counsel put it in a candid 1963 memo, the tobacco industry is “in the business of selling nicotine, an addictive drug.”

Indeed, some surveys suggest nicotine may be even more addictive than crack: As Dan Baum points out in “Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure,” only a tiny percentage of teenagers who’ve tried crack actually go on to become addicts; among teen smokers, most of those who’ve tried the stuff become nicoholics and regular cigarette users.

Without nicotine, there just wouldn’t be much point in stuffing burning weeds into your mouth, no matter how many Joe Camel ads your brain was forced to absorb in a day. Consider the fate of Philip Morris’ de-nicotined cigarette DeNic: The company poured $300 million into test-marketing the product, but found no ready buyers. “Without the nicotine kick,” the Washington Post notes, “the cigarettes had all the appeal of smoking wheat.”

So what does the agreement do about nicotine? Far from enhancing the power of the government to deal with this addictive drug, it actually places new restrictions on the power of the Food and Drug Administration. Last April, a federal judge in North Carolina granted the FDA the ability to regulate nicotine as a drug and cigarettes as drug-delivery systems. But the new $370 billion agreement would cut back this authority, forbidding the agency from a nicotine ban until 2009 and forcing the agency to jump hurdles to show that a ban wouldn’t cause new problems — like a black market in nicotine-rich cigarettes.

The aggressive regulation, and eventual elimination, of nicotine in cigarettes would help to “supplant Americans’ deep cultural affinity for tobacco” far more effectively than any advertising ban. But once again — as they have done with the issues of television violence and Internet smut — American politicians have been content to focus on image rather than reality. This deal may look good from a distance, but as the old clichi goes, it is based on smoke and mirrors. Get rid of nicotine, and Joe Camel will take care of himself.

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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