clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why you’re going to see ads by tobacco companies admitting that smoking kills

The ad campaign comes after years of legal battles.

Tobacco companies will now have to admit — on national television — that smoking kills.

After 11 years of appeals and delays, a federal court has finally forced tobacco companies Altria, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, Lorillard, and Philip Morris USA to run a year-long advertising campaign in which they will admit that they tried to make cigarettes more addictive and that smoking kills more people than die from murder, HIV/AIDS, suicide, car crashes, drug overdoses, and alcohol combined, among other messages.

The television ads won’t be particularly flashy, with one example video — with just text and a robotic reading — embedded above. But they will be required to appear on all major networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) at primetime at least five times a week for a year beginning this weekend, NBC News reported.

Text ads will also run in more than 50 newspapers across the country, from the New York Times to local outlets like La Voz de Houston and the Northern Kentucky Herald.

Tobacco companies will pay for the campaign.

In 1999, the US Department of Justice filed a racketeering lawsuit against tobacco companies. In 2006, US District Judge Gladys Kessler ruled that tobacco companies must pay for ads admitting wrongdoing. But tobacco companies held up the ruling through appeals, obtaining major concessions that, for example, let them avoid having to admit that they deliberately lied and manipulated in previous marketing campaigns for cigarettes.

And, crucially, the tobacco companies managed to delay the advertising campaign long enough that it now seems like a relic of an old era: As more people get their news and entertainment from digital outlets and streaming services, the ad campaign will air on network television and print newspapers.

Given that and the boring nature of the ads, even supporters of the campaign say it’s unclear just what kind of impact it will have. Cliff Douglas of the American Cancer Society told NBC News that the ads may at least anger people about what tobacco companies did, so “they don’t want to give their hard earned bucks to Big Tobacco.”

At the very least, the ads will have one effect: After decades of deceptive advertising in which they downplayed and denied the risks of smoking, tobacco companies will finally have to come clean about the deadly dangers of cigarettes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in America and kills 480,000 people in the US each year. In comparison, drug overdoses — which public health officials now consider a full-blown epidemic due to the opioid crisis — killed more than 64,000 in 2016.

Public health campaigns in the US have for years tried to get people to quit smoking, using, among other tools, warning labels, public smoking bans, and higher taxes on cigarettes. These types of efforts are credited with massively cutting back the smoking rate — for US adults, from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 16.8 percent in 2014.

But as Julia Belluz explained for Vox, there is still a lot of room for improvement. For example, cigarette packaging in other countries must have more aggressive warning labels that use graphic images and explicit warnings about the deadly risk of smoking. The US, by contrast, hasn’t updated health warning labels on packs in decades.

Some states have also increased the legal age for purchasing cigarettes to 21, which research shows will work to stop more people from smoking. But the great majority of states still do not have such a law in place.

The court-enforced advertising campaign, then, represents just the latest of the many ongoing efforts to get people to stop using the deadliest consumer product in human history.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.