December 5, 2022

Insight – EL49 News

General knowledge and culture with a libertarian approach

When cigarette companies used doctors to promote smoking.

3 min read

Cigarette companies used doctors to promote smoking.

By Becky Little

Which cigarette do doctors say causes the least throat irritation? In the 1930s and 1940s, tobacco companies happily told you it was theirs. In cigarette ads, tobacco companies used the authority of doctors to make claims about their cigarettes seem more legitimate.

To today’s reader, the promotion of cigarettes as healthy (even for young and pregnant mothers) and the use of doctors’ endorsements may seem horrible. However, before 1950 it was normal

“People started worrying in the 1940s because lung cancer was on the rise; the death rate from lung cancer was skyrocketing,” says Martha Gardner, professor of history and social sciences at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. “People noticed that and were concerned about it, but it didn’t mean they knew it was the cigarettes.”

Yes, cigarettes caused coughing and throat irritation. But the companies used this to their advantage to promote their product as better than the competition. It wasn’t all cigarettes that gave you problems, it was just those others.

The first cigarette company to use doctors in its ads was American Tobacco, maker of Lucky Strikes. In 1930, it ran an ad that said “20,679 doctors say ‘LUCKIES are less irritating'” to the throat. To obtain this number, the company’s advertising agency had sent doctors cartons of Lucky Strike cigarettes and a letter asking them if they thought Lucky Strikes were “less irritating to sensitive and tender throats than other cigarettes,” and noting that “many people” had already said they were.

Predictably, many doctors responded positively to this biased and tendentious question, and Lucky Strike advertisements used their responses to imply that their cigarettes must be medically better for the throat. In 1937, the Philip Morris Company stepped forward with a Saturday Evening Post ad claiming that doctors had conducted a study showing that “when smokers switched to Philip Morris, all cases of irritation disappeared completely and definitely improved.” What was not mentioned was that Philip Morris had sponsored these doctors.

Philip Morris continued to advertise “studies” it sponsored during the 1940s, the decade that saw the introduction of penicillin. “The American public is thinking about medicine in a very positive way and science in a positive way,” says Gardner, co-author of an American Journal of Public Health article on doctors in cigarette ads. “So framing it that way seems like it will help draw people in.”

To that end, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company created a Medical Relations Division and advertised it in medical journals. Reynolds began paying for the research and then cited it in its advertisements as Philip Morris. In 1946, Reynolds launched an advertising campaign with the slogan “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.” They solicited this “find” by giving doctors a free carton of Camel cigarettes and then asking what brand they smoked.

In the mid-1950s, when tobacco companies had to confront hard evidence that their products caused lung cancer, advertising strategies began to change. “What happens is that all the different cigarette companies work together to try to promote the idea that … we don’t know yet if it’s harmful,” Gardner says. In 1954, these companies published “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” arguing that research showing a link between cancer and smoking was alarming but inconclusive. Therefore, the companies were forming a research committee to investigate the problem.

After this, cigarette ads stopped showing doctors because it was no longer a convincing tactic. Doctors came out against cigarettes, culminating in 1964 with the U.S. Surgeon General’s report that smoking causes lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and chronic bronchitis.

Even so, the tobacco companies continued to maintain, through their research committee, that there was still a “controversy” over whether cigarettes were unhealthy until 1998. That year, the Tobacco Institute and the Committee for Tobacco Research (as it was then known) was dissolved with a court settlement.

This is a translation of the following article:

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