Secondary Smoke Advertisements

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

This 1987 marketing document from the Philip Morris collection reveals an ad agency testing various themes about secondhand smoke on behalf of the Philip Morris Tobacco Company (PM). The ads themselves show how PM intended to respond to the public health threat caused by secondhand smoke from their products, and how the company intended to manipulate the public's understanding of health information. PM's ad agency described its mission this way:

"The purpose of the overall [ad] project was to look for a way to stem the ever increasing tide of legal restrictions on smoking. Philip Morris is looking for a way to avoid further legislation to restrict where people can smoke...It was hoped that disarming the issue of secondary smoke would be a strong device to slow anti-smoking legislation."

A major theme of the ads was that "the case isn't proven" that secondhand tobacco smoke harms nonsmokers, ironically the same theme that the tobacco industry used for years to reassure smokers about primary smoking and keep them smoking.

The people who viewed these ads were surprisingly savvy about the tobacco industry's intent and methods. The first ad, entitled "Scientist," featured a woman pharmacologist dressed in a white lab coat telling the audience that the case hasn't been proven that secondhand smoke is harmful. Participants questioned the credibility of the woman, pointed out that she was a pharmacologist and not a doctor, and that the purpose of her wearing a white lab coat was to manipulate the audience into believing she was a legitimate authority figure.

Another ad, titled "Black Man/White Man," equated smoking restrictions with racism. Participants had a strong negative reaction to this analogy, and pointed out its absurdity:

...most disagreed that smokers suffer from discrimination. Non-smokers were quick to voice the fact that smokers can go anywhere, they just may not be able to smoke: 'How have his rights been violated? He can go anywhere. That's a bunch of garbage... ' ' was ridiculous, because they can go into a restaurant.' Although some credence was given to the rights of the smoker, non-smokers were not about to give up their own rights. ' smoker in this room would infringe on the rights of seven people.' 'The way I feel about it, my sitting here and not smoking is not bothering anybody, but if I was sitting here smoking, I'd be bothering somebody. So, he (smoker) is the one who is infringing on the rights.'

General comments by the focus group leader indicate the participants' cynical attitude about secondhand smoke ads in general:

From listening to all six groups, several points were brought up that seemed universal across smokers and non-smokers: 1. The use of the Phillip Morris name as a sponsor for the advertisements was a definite negative. Smokers and non-smokers alike tended to not believe the ads based on the use of the Philip Morris name. One respondent stated: "...I wouldn't trust it because it came from the manufacturer and it almost constitutes an ad for smoking... I don't trust what a cigarette manufacturer would tell me about it (second-hand smoke).

The tester reported that some participants felt "all of the ads were thinly veiled attempts to get advertising for cigarette companies back on the air." He commented that many of the smokers tested were "guilty" smokers who wanted to quit smoking because they knew they were hurting themselves. The tester pointed out that "For this reason, smokers were not anxious to jump on the bandwagon that says secondhand smoke isn't harmful to non-smokers."

Handwritten comments on the document, ostensibly by cigarette company representative or proponent, trivialize the public health knowledge held by the participants and request a toning down of adjectives like "all" and "many" in describing the universality of feeling among them. An interesting example is at the bottom of Page 2041096511, where the tester wrote that "There was a basic DISBELIEF across all groups that secondhand smoke is not harmful." The handwritten comment next to this statement dismisses this important obervation out of hand, saying merely

"Tone down. Bothersome."

Date 19870800
Bates 2041096508/6544
Collection Philip Morris
Pages 37