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September 25, 2014 at 7:45 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Beating the Hypocrisy of Tobacco

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Earlier this year, the CVS pharmacy chain announced that by October it would cease in selling tobacco products. The company reported that about $2 billion in sales, or about 3% of their income was made up of tobacco sales. Nevertheless, CVS stood firm that it wanted to focus more on health.  Along these lines, they changed their name officially to CVS Health. In a nod from the health-loving public, CVS Health has made up $5.4 billion in business for this coming year as projected by Forbes.  Here we are now, on the eve of the October deadline and, as they said, CVS Health stores are indeed completely free of tobacco.  Still it remains to be seen if the other pharmacy chains will follow suit.

As a health-conscious individual both on personal and vocational levels, I've always scoffed at the hypocrisy of a store that sells instruments of both health and unhealthy. This blog will highlight some of the hypocrisy past and present surrounding tobacco sales and the implications to our society.

9 out of 10 doctors recommend...

50 years ago, the U.S. Surgeon General officially declared cigarettes unhealthy and linked them to cancer. This was not a sudden revelation. The knowledge was there years - prior revealed by science and plain common sense.

It's funny looking back as all the adds prior to the Surgeon General warning highlighting doctors recommending various brands. These ads invariably showed a smart-looking physician in a white coat and maybe a fancy graph showing some claim making one brand better than the other.  In reality, the only honest one I saw involved a doctor touting a brand with a graph that showed up and down waves regarding tobacco levels. The ad basically explained addiction in a nutshell. Luckily, truth prevailed and these sorts of ads disappeared.

"We don't advertise to children."

RJR Reynolds had the audacity to make this claim as Joe Camel billboards and magazine ads were being seen by Americans on a daily basis.  If the nature of a dopey-looking cartoon character appealing specifically to children is not enough, disclosed documents prove the fact.

"Evidence is now available to indicate that the 14-to-18- year-old group is an increasing segment of the smoking population. RJR-T must soon establish a successful new brand in this market if our position in the industry is to be maintained over the long term." - 1976 Claude Teague draft report, "Planning Assumptions and Forecast for the Period 1977-1986 for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company." Bates No. 502819513-9532  (1)

As it turns out, this report was a lucrative idea for RJ Reynolds. Pre-Joe Camel rates of smokers under 18 lighting up Camels were around one percent.  At the height of the campaign, rates approached one-in-three.  Another study showed that six year old children were as familiar with Joe Camel as they were with Mickey Mouse. (2)  Eventually, public sentiment and a call-out from President Clinton killed the "Cancer Camel."

Health on One Page, Unhealth on the Other

For years, tobacco advertising dominated magazine ads. Sports magazines touted healthy athletes on the front and advertised the robust Marlboro Man on the back cover. Magazines like Family Circle highlighted cover stories educating about cancer warning signs or ways to stay health while promoting the number one cause of cancer and unhealthy on the back cover.  On their board of directors at this time was Dr. Michael DeBakey, the famed cardiothoracic surgeon who saw first-hand the ills of smoking, fixing plugged heart arteries and removing lung tumors.

As a medical student in the early 1990's I rotated through many doctors' offices and was struck with this hypocrisy as I walked through the waiting rooms always stocked with Family Circle.  I wrote Dr. DeBakey a letter asking him why Family Circle would promote health and also promote the number one killer of Americans through it's advertising space. I received a curt letter back from Dr. DeBakey basically saying that Family Circle was exercising it's First Amendment freedom of the press.  Eventually through common sense, ethics and governmental regulations on tobacco advertising, Family Circle and several other magazines "improved their health."

Lip Service At 3M

In this order, another company cleaned up its act in regards to servicing health and unhealthy.  The Minnesota-based 3M Corporation was manufacturing, among its multitude of products, both the paper for cigarettes AND the cartridges for inhalers used to treat the lung diseases caused by smoking.  In 1996, pressure from stock holders caused 3M to extinguish all contracts with tobacco companies. (3)

The Smoking Section

I once heard it remarked that smoking sections in restaurants are like peeing sections in pools.  With the permeability of smoke it the air, the notion that a few feet can label air as smoke-free is ludicrous.  I once flew on an overseas flight back in the smoking section days. I had the first row of seats on the non-smoking section of the plane.  Without question I can attest that I walked off that plane as smokey as the people lighting up three feet in front of me.

Most states have enacted clean air legislation regulating where smoking can and cannot occur.  This includes most public buildings such as government locations, shopping facilities and restaurants.  Many of the hold-outs are states where the economies (and the politicians) are dependent on tobacco funds.

Smoking up the Funds

I often feel that if the residents of my state were to suddenly stop smoking, drinking and gambling, our fair state would soon thereafter spiral into bankruptcy. The government has taxed various "sins" with vengeance. In spirit, the funds from tobacco are supposed to go toward tobacco education for the youth and for the health costs of tobacco-related disease. This funding really hasn't factored to the full measure. It has been shown, however, that cost prohibition is one of the most successful measures in preventing youth from starting a tobacco habit. I fear, however, that many states have become as addicted to tobacco funds as their smoking constituents are addicted to tobacco.

States are put in a precarious spot, affecting the voting integrity of lawmakers.  The catch 22 lies in the phase-out of the $250 billion tobacco settlement.  The funding is set up that if tobacco profits diminish so do funds.  It's certainly hard to bite a hand that is feeding.  Governments are put in a position to want its people to quit smoking...but not too hard.

In characteristic hypocrisy, Big Tobacco officially weighs in against high cigarette taxation stating concerns over the financial state of its patrons. Yet, three tobacco giants were among Standard and Poor's companies with the highest profit margins. In other words, these companies milk more profit off their consumers than other retail companies. According to an article in USA Today, "Smokers are definitely a source of smokin' hot profit margins." (4)

Smoke Screen: Big Tobacco Lobbies Against E-Cigs

As if hypocrisy in this industry should even be a surprise, Big Tobacco took up the FDA regulation of e-cigarettes in a compassionate plea on behalf of Americans.  This month Reynolds American sent a 119 page document to the FDA urging them to ban e-cigarettes as a threat to public health.  According to spokesman David Howard, e-cigarettes are "sold in non-child resistant packaging in flavors that may be appealing to youth." (5)  All this from the company that brought us Joe Camel!

The Present State

Through the above mention and other efforts, our country is enjoying its lowest rate of young smokers in over 22 years.  In 1977, the rate peaked at 36.4% and now it is down to 15.7%.  ( 6) But maybe the e-cigarette wave accounts for some of this.  Regardless, things seem to be getting better. We are getting better at seeing through the hypocrisy thrown at us from the tobacco industry. We do have further to go to improve our health as a country, however.  We can continue on the lessons from 3M, CVS and cleaning up advertising. Consider the following:

  • Support CVS as your pharmacy, sending a message to other pharmacies
  • Patronize restaurants and other businesses with clean air
  • Look at your investments to make sure that you are not supporting tobacco companies in your 401k

Live, and live well!




3. 3M Quits Smoking, Time, May 3, 1996.



6. Teen Smoking Way Down.  What About E-Cigarettes?, Time, June 12, 2014.

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