Smoked Out

The tobacco industry huffed and puffed at us in 1979. Today, even though it’s still intimidating journalists and lavishing money on legislators, the industry is in a more difficult spot.

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Not long after Mother Jones was founded, the magazine faced a dilemma sure to rattle any publication striving for both journalistic integrity and commercial viability. Tobacco companies offered the fledgling journal a sizable and steady flow of cigarette ads.

The offer sparked a heated debate on the magazine’s editorial board, as members sought to balance devotion to free speech, fiscal reality, and their political consciences. “We knew what it was like to be shut out by the media,” recalls Editor in Chief Jeffrey Klein, then part of the five-member board. “The question was: Do we have a right to censor someone’s ad just because we believe they’re merchants of death?” In the end, board members voted 3 to 2 to accept the tobacco money, and to demonstrate the magazine’s independence, they also commissioned an exposé on the deadly effects of cigarettes.

Published in January of 1979, “Why Dick Can’t Stop Smoking” offered a scathing look at what writer Gwenda Blair called “one of the country’s most profitable and, in turn, most politically powerful industries.” Long before the current federal focus, Blair described nicotine as addictive. She also outlined how the industry uses campaign contributions to influence members of Congress and lucrative advertisements to “make most of the nation’s press afraid to print stories like this.”

As a professional courtesy, Mother Jones gave tobacco manufacturers advance notice of the cover story so they could pull their ads from the issue. Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson, and others responded by canceling their entire commitment: several years’ worth of cigarette ads. In a show of corporate solidarity, many liquor companies followed suit.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate