The lifesaving struggle against the tobacco industry and its formerly iron grip over Congress is branching out in various fruitful directions.
In 1964, the surgeon general launched the drive against tobacco and cancer with a historic report connecting smoking with lung cancer. There followed several liability lawsuits which were not successful, but they produced more information for the public and helped sharpen the culpability of tobacco companies who advertised in order to addict. Doctors became more aroused over the paradox of counseling patients who smoked and urged them to stop smoking. Stop-smoking clinics started to open around the country in the early ’70s.
Between 1976 and 1986 there appeared to be a hiatus but those were the years when important public attitudes began to change along with a steady drop in the number of smokers. In that period, non-smokers began to speak up and demand that smokers not force them to inhale their exhalations. We did the early work 20 years ago to obtain non-smoking sections in airlines and interstate buses. That itself began to remind non-smokers of their rights.
During the 1980s, more evidence linking more diseases to smoking was published in the medical journals, including growing estimates of damage to non‑smokers who breathed other smoker’s smoke. Children in families whose parents smoked were particularly vulnerable.
Now the struggle has branched out to persuade universities and insurance companies to stop holding tobacco industry stock in their investment portfolio. Harvard University has agreed to divest. And the pressure against tobacco industry advertising, sparked by the Canadian ban, is mounting in this country.
The Advocacy Institute in Washington tracks the diverse opposition to this largest of all drug-selling and addiction. In a recent newsletter, the Institute reports on the adoption of a weak voluntary code by the Outdoor Advertising Association of America calling for the removal “of all tobacco and alcohol advertisements from billboards within 500 feet of primary and secondary schools, places of worship and hospitals.”
Of the approximately 3 million billboards in America, close to 1 million are for tobacco and alcohol products. A higher percentage of billboards advertising tobacco and alcohol appear in low income neighborhoods. For example, in Baltimore, 76 percent of billboards in poor areas advertise alcohol and tobacco, compared with 20 percent in white neighborhoods. This bias has enraged some minority clergy in New York City and elsewhere who have been leading residents to whitewash over these billboards of death and disease.
Clearly the tobacco industry has been on the defensive. It loses 5,000 customers a day in America (4,000 quit smoking and 1,000 die from smoking-related disease). But its profits are at record levels because of the enormous markup in the price of cigarettes as compared with the paltry cost to produce them. Tobacco companies are also stepping up their promotion in the Third World and in Eastern Europe.
In America, smoking is fast becoming a social no-no. More and more cities are passing ordinances banning or restricting tobacco smoking in public places such as restaurants.
To keep track of what is going on in the diversifying drive for a nicotine-free America, write to the Advocacy Institute, 1730 Rhode Island Ave., suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20036. Its information is the second-best motivator to join this cancer-prevention effort — exceeded only by seeing a loved one perish from this noxious weed.