The Tobacco Wars

1964 The scientist and the lawyer

On January 11, 1964, some 200 members of the press are handed a 150,000-word report by Surgeon General Luther Terry’s blue-ribbon advisory committee on smoking. The report concludes that “many kinds of damage to body functions and organs, cells and tissues occur more frequently and severely in smokers” than in nonsmokers. The New York Times calls the findings “a severe blow to the rear-guard action fought in recent years by the tobacco industry. It dismisses, one by one, the arguments raised to question the validity of earlier studies.”

In a remarkable February 18, 1964, memo to his superiors, Philip Morris research director Helmut Wakeham writes: “The industry must come forward with evidence to how. . .its products, present and prospective, are not harmful. . . The industry should abandon its past reticence with respect to medical research.”

Wakeham’s proposal angers Paul Smith, Philip Morris’ ultraprotective general counsel. “I’d hear from Smith every day,” Wakeham says later. “The legal department’s view of it was that you couldn’t be criticized for not knowing something.”

At the annual shareholders’ meeting in April 1964, Philip Morris President Joseph Cullman says his company scientists and outside experts feel the surgeon general’s prime conclusion linking lung cancer to smoking is unjustifd–not at all what Wakeham’s memo stated. Years later, Wakeham’s subpoenaed memo would provide compelling evidence in a critical liability lawsuit against the company.

1964 A cowboy is born

The phrase “Marlboro Country” lodges in the collective consciousness of the Leo Burnett ad agency team as it struggles to break Marlboro–a cigarette really no better than any other brand–out of its lethargic sales. Then one day a member of the Burnett team brings in a recording of the score for the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven. Video footage rolls as the narrator speaks over the rousing movie music. The net effect is electrifying: A cigarette as larger-than-life hero, its virtues made manifest by thundering hoofbeats and soaring brass horns.

Thirty years later, even though restricted by law to print media only, “Marlboro Country” has survived as one of the most successful advertising campaigns ever devised. The overworked metaphor’s enduring appeal: “Marlboro Country” is unpolluted, free of hazards to one’s moral and physical health–precisely the opposite of what science says about smoking cigarettes.


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