You can almost feel sorry for people working for tobacco companies. They’re selling a product with a primary ingredient (nicotine) that was and still is used as a pesticide in some areas; they’re required by law to give money to a bunch of annoying people who are running ads about how much of a jerk you are for smoking; and the only industry under heavier advertising restrictions is street prostitution.
Then again, they are trying as hard as they can to get you to smoke something that their own research shows is going to kill you so quickly that they need to start selling it to your kids as soon as possible, and they will say or do anything at all to convince you otherwise, so now that we think about it, you really can’t feel sorry for these people at all. Let’s take a smooth and mentholated look at some of the craziest things cigarette companies have said and done, so we can kill time until a lung donor comes up.
1. DON’T WORRY, THE CANCER CAN’T GET PAST THAT LITTLE WAD OF PAPER AT THE ENDIt’s been known to doctors and researchers since at least the early 1950s that smoking was linked to cancer, and there were many people before that date that couldn’t help but think that inhaling huge hot clouds of poisonous smoke was probably not a great move health-wise. Confronted with a market that was becoming more health-conscious and science-literate every day, cigarette manufacturers hit upon the idea of mass-producing and promoting the previously rare filtered cigarette.
Filters had been first patented in 1925 as a way of cutting back on excess tar, smoke, and tobacco flakes, but generally failed to catch on except as luxury items as the filter also cooled the smoke slightly, leading to a “cooler” drag. Tobacco manufacturers realized that by straining out a bit of the nasty stuff, promoting the “cleaner” inhale, and generally portraying the filter as a safety innovation, they would be able to claim with a mostly straight face that this new generation of cigarettes was much healthier. Today, filtered cigarettes dominate the market, yet research shows that they are almost exactly as dangerous as the old kind. As long as you’re drawing nicotine smoke into your lungs, you’re at risk of cancer.
2. MICRONITE FILTERS: “THE GREATEST HEALTH PROTECTION IN CIGARETTE HISTORY”One of the cigarette companies to jump on the filter revolution was Lorillard, who trumped other filtered cigs with their Kent brand, marketed as containing a “secret ingredient” previously used by military-grade gas masks in World War II and referred to as Micronite. Surely this secret ingredient would make it even less likely to contract lung cancer or other diseases from smoking, right?
That’s assuming the secret ingredient wasn’t asbestos, and not just any asbestos, but crocidolite or “African blue” asbestos, considered the deadliest of the asbestos subtypes. Doctors were aware of the dangers posed by asbestos inhalation as early as the 1920s, but this was before tobacco companies kept a staff of doctors on hand to determine exactly how deadly their products were.
Asbestos-producing companies were generally able to conceal how deadly their product was until the '70s -- and Big Tobacco learned a lot from their legal strategies -- but Micronite filters were discontinued in 1956.
3. LIGHTS, MILDS, AND LOW-TAR CIGARETTES: THE HEALTHY ALTERNATIVEThe introduction of the filter tip successfully convinced millions of American smokers to just switch to filtereds instead of quitting, but there were still some people that were worried about their health and still more medical research on the horizon that promised bad news for the tobacco industry. Enter the “light” cigarette, basically a filter-tip with little vents poked through it to increase the flow of outside air, reducing the amount of smoke drawn in per “standard” puff.
We say “standard” because this form of measurement was based on the International Standards Organization’s “Smoking Machine,” a chemical measurement device that took carefully measured drags of equal length on new cigarettes as an attempt by the Federal Trade Commission to determine how much nicotine and tar the “average” smoker would inhale from each cig. Of course, everybody smokes a cigarette differently (the FTC as much as admitted this during their experiments) and it was eventually determined that smokers of light brands actually tended to draw harder on their cigarettes, inhaling the same levels of harmful material while finishing off a pack faster.
Because the “healthy” cigarettes either provided less of a nicotine hit or got smoked off faster, more of them were purchased than an equivalent amount of regulars, and it became possible for smokers who stuck to the light brands to inhale more dangerous products than smokers of regular brands, which suited tobacco companies just fine.
4. “MORE DOCTORS SMOKE CAMELS THAN ANY OTHER CIGARETTE!”RJ Reynolds' Camels claim was the most famous ad to use the image of the friendly smoking doctor to try to belittle the growing evidence of the cancer link, but nearly every tobacco company has used extremely dodgy “medical proof” that their particular brand of coffin nails was less dangerous than the competition’s. As they were filling America’s newspapers with images of Camel-puffing docs offering a light to foxy nurses, RJ Reynolds was also pioneering the field of scientific-sounding advertising terms with the creation of the “T-zone,” a region of the body unique to smokers that the uninformed commonly referred to as “the nose and throat” and could suffer “irritation” when exposed to the fumes of any cigarette besides Camels. Again, this was based on the reports of unnamed “doctors,” sometimes shown lighting up next to a hospital bed, careful not to expose the T-zones of vulnerable patients to the secondhand smoke of inferior brands of cigarettes.
5. IT’S A PSYCHOLOGICAL FACT: PLEASURE HELPS YOUR DISPOSITIONSome cigarette manufacturers didn’t stop with the claim that their products were less dangerous than the competition. Their cigarettes could actually improve your health! Many companies made the claim that cigarettes soothed “jangled nerves,” but modern research proved that smoking had no non-placebo effect on “nerves” other than those that had been “jangled” by the fact that it had been too long since the last nicotine fix.
Another popular claim was that some special treatment unique to the cigarette (like the way that Lucky Strike cigarettes famously claimed to be “toasted”) cut down on irritation and coughing from “dirty” or “rough” smoke but was generally less effective in preventing emphysema. Maybe the boldest statement was made by RJR in a campaign that Camels “stimulated digestion” by “increasing the flow of alkaline digestive fluids ... in a pleasant way.” This ad campaign went west around the same time Camel started rolling out its smoking-doctors strategy, suggesting that while doctors may smoke Camels, they probably don’t actually believe anything Camel tells them.
6. SECRET INGREDIENT: COCAINEThe notes recorded during a 1967 brainstorming session at the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company contain suggestions such as “6. How can we blend in a satisfier like cocaine?” Cocaine was recognized as a highly addictive and medically dangerous drug since the '20s, but its medical use as an anesthetic meant that it wasn’t registered as a Schedule II drug until the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.
That meant that what B&W were planning in 1967 might not have been strictly illegal, just incredibly unethical. Other interesting items on the list of notes are “22. How to market an addictive product in an ethical manner” (hint: don’t put cocaine in it), “68. How to make a smoking respirator” for the hip asthmatic on the go, and the bizarre and mildly disturbing “56. How to inject nicotine into Fonzie.” Leave Fonzie alone, you pricks!
7. PROJECT S.C.U.M.No, Project S.C.U.M. wasn’t a direct-to-video monster movie from the '80s, and no, it isn’t your weird cousin’s hardcore band. Project S.C.U.M. (for “Sub-Cultural Urban Marketing”) was the charming name for RJ Reynolds’ 1995 attempt to target various demographics in the San Francisco area: the gay community, the homeless (who apparently prefer Dorals), and “rebellious” members of “Generation X.” You know, scum.
RJR figured their edgy new Red Kamels brand was perfect for the emerging scum demographic and prepared a fun little PowerPoint with lots of neat fonts, borders, and smiley faces about how Red Kamel sales reps and marketing efforts needed to focus on scum and their various scummy hangouts e.g. head shops. It also turned out scum (being scum) had a fairly relaxed attitude to smoking drugs in public, which was considered a plus for the Red Kamel brand in a landscape increasingly dominated by public anti-smoking campaigns.
At some point, RJR realized that they were going to have to release a number of official documents to an incoming Congressional probe and changed the name to a more Frisco-friendly Project Sourdough (caring little for the feelings of the many hardy Alaskan mountain men who go by that name), but numerous references to the earlier name and the scummy nature of its targets persisted, earning Red Kamel salesmen very chilly receptions in the city by the bay.
8. THE QUEST FOR “FUBYAS”What are FUBYAS? Any cigarette marketing exec from 1985 would be able to tell you in a heartbeat that FUBYAS are coveted and lucrative First Usual Brand Young Adult Smokers, and the idea was that whatever brand you start smoking when you’re 18 (or, you know, whenever) will be your brand right up until you light up in an oxygen tent and blow up your room at the hospital.
As a result, tobacco companies spent a lot of time brainstorming ways to get “young adults” smoking their brand, and when they were forced to yield these documents to the government following the Big Tobacco settlement, notes from these sessions were made available to the public. A sample RJ Reynolds document lists cigarette promotion ideals that vary from goofy (“free air-guitar giveaway”), dorky (t-shirts with the slogan “Camel Smokers Like the Hump”), embarrassingly '80s (“Best New-Wave Hair Competition”), completely bizarre (“Create a cult hit musical based around Camel to replace 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'”), or probably illegal (“free beer and Clearasil to new smokers”).
Unfortunately for everyone, RJR never got around to offering their big-ticket promotion ideas -- tickets to ride the Space Shuttle and dinner with Eddie Murphy -- and now all the Space Shuttles are blown up and Eddie Murphy sucks.
9. THE NATIONAL SMOKERS ALLIANCEIn a brave and patriotic response to the tyrannical assault on personal freedoms represented by Congress considering investigation of the tobacco industry, the National Smokers Alliance was formed in 1993, publishing an informative pamphlet titled “The Voice of Reason” and often publicly fronted by “shock” TV-talk-show host Morton Downey Jr.
The NSA claimed that the backlash against smoking (and smokers) was another form of prejudice informed by “political correction,” and that only “the vigilance of citizens who smoke” could guard the “freedom of choice” that was under threat of extinction. The NSA had particularly deep pockets for an organization of people who were buying cigarettes all the time, and it soon came out that the organization was 100-percent funded and operated by the Philip Morris Tobacco Company.
The NSA’s canvassers, phone operators, and “volunteers” were revealed to mostly be unemployed college students making easy money leaving “I am a smoker and I spent $___ at this establishment” at the campus pub, and celebrity member Morton Downey Jr. had to give up his membership after having a lung removed in 1996. Philip Morris defunded the NSA in 1999; Morton Downey Jr. died in 2001 after failing to replace his lung with a suit of flying robot armor.
Next: 15 Things You Didn't Know About Beer
10. OPERATION DOWNUNDERWhile tobacco companies have been muddying the waters of medical research and public opinion on how bad cigarettes are for smokers for more than 50 years (fake scientific and citizen groups like the NSA date back to 1953’s industry-founded Council for Tobacco Research), they completely forgot to consider the effect cigarettes might have on people around smokers except for how to make the people around smokers think about how cool smoking is.
Therefore, when the first second-hand-smoke laws hit the books in the late '80s, Philip Morris panicked and commissioned Operation Downunder, a comprehensive attempt to discredit the research showing that second-hand smoke (or ETS, for “environmental tobacco smoke”) was dangerous. The strategy document notes that the Philip Morris “cannot say ETS is ‘safe’ and if we do, this is a ‘dangerous’ statement,” and expressed concern that eventually smokers would figure out that if the smoke they exhaled was medically regarded as too dangerous to stand near, how dangerous was it while it was in their lungs?
Happily for Phillip Morris, the answer came later in the document: “Chill the rhetoric and bad science by suing them.” It was not immediately obvious who would be sued and on what grounds, but this was only one of many ideas to emerge from the Downunder conference. Others: create a fake science journal, challenge the tax-exempt status of various anti-smoking groups, replace Surgeon General Koop with a more tobacco-friendly doctor, organize “spontaneous” protests, and campaign against existing second-hand-smoke laws in various states. One thing they couldn’t try was to refute any of the claims made by their opponents, as the document flatly admits “we don’t have anything to slam them with on [the] health issue.”