Eric Lawson is believed to be the fifth former “Marlboro Man” to die of cancer — the disease triggered by the deadly but legal product he promoted for years. Like others who appeared in TV commercials for cigarettes, Mr. Lawson, who died last month, was a willing shill for the multibillion-dollar tobacco industry.
Fifty years ago, the first U.S. surgeon general’s report on smoking and its effects on health identified cigarettes as the major culprit in escalating rates of lung cancer and heart disease. At that time, an estimated 40 percent of Americans smoked. More credence was given to the seductive Marlboro Man ads than to the minority of doctors who began to sound the alarm on the dangers of cigarettes.
Today, smoking rates have fallen to 18 percent among American adults. Decades of devastating rates of cancer and heart disease have convinced people that the Marlboro Men and the industry they served were deceiving them. Still, 44 million Americans remain hooked — 6 million of them children between the ages of 12 and 17.
Young people today, like their predecessors, remain susceptible to the lure of cigarette advertising. That’s why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, exercising its new mandate to regulate cigarettes, is launching a year-long, $115 million anti-smoking campaign aimed at young people. The ads will appear on radio and TV, and in print and social media.
The tough, creative messages don’t rehash well-known arguments about the cancer risks of smoking. Too many teenagers believe they’re invincible and will never get the disease.
So the FDA has decided to use appeals that showcase the deleterious effects of smoking on teeth, skin, and body. The vanity of the moment means a lot more to teenagers than what might happen to their lungs after decades of smoking.
If the new campaign gets young people to quit smoking, or not start at all, it will prove a battle worth waging.