5 Evil Sales Moves by Big Tobacco

On World Tobacco Day, see past the cigarette companies’ smoke screen.

the film poster for the period piece “Coco Chanel” shows French star Audrey Tatou cigarette in hand

Not an overt advertisement, the film poster for the period piece Coco Chanel shows French star Audrey Tatou with a cigarette in her hand. (Photo: Getty Images)

Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

We don’t sell Tic Tacs for Christ’s sake. We sell cigarettes. And they’re cool and available and *addictive*. The job is almost done for us! 

—Big Tobacco Executive, Thank You For Smoking (2005)


Smoking is far and away the leading cause of early and preventable death in the United States, resulting in some 443,000 fatalities each year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recreational tobacco use costs almost $200 billion every year in medical expenses and lost productivity.

Of course, those losses don’t stop Big Tobacco from continuing to invest in the demise of public health. Most recently, the major tobacco purveyors banded together to battle the graphic warning labels required on every pack of cigarettes sold in the United States. Despite the fact that countries like Canada, Australia, Brazil, Iran, and Singapore, among others, have already adopted gruesome warnings as a public health measure, pasting in those gory labels will apparently take nothing short of a decision from the United States Supreme Court.

Bending the rule of law is evil business as usual as far as Big Tobacco is concerned.

Here’s a look at five wheels and deals adopted by America’s foremost cancer providers as they adapted to a world increasingly hostile to their wheeze-inducing wares.

1) What Women Want 

The modern era of tobacco advertising and marketing was the direct result of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which broke apart the existing tobacco monopoly in 1907 and split it into four separate companies. For the first time, market share was everything. As the movement for women’s suffrage gained in popularity, manufacturers saw an opportunity to rebrand what was once considered dirty and unfeminine as a sign of rebellion and independence. As George Washington Hill, the president of American Tobacco, said in 1928: “It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard.”

By the 1960s, nearly 35 percent of women called themselves smokers, and in 1968, Philip Morris came out with the world’s first cigarette marketed solely to women, Virginia Slims. However, after extensive Surgeon General’s warnings about the risks of smoking for pregnant mothers during the ’70s and ’80s, the rate of women smoking steadily dropped to where it currently sits, at 17.4 percent.

2) Cigarettes on the Silver Screen

In 1970, President Nixon signed the Cigarette Smoking Act, which required tobacco manufacturers to place warning labels on their products and banned them from advertising on radio or television. (In a last-minute concession, the companies were allowed to extend their ads for one day, January 1, 1971, to reap one last windfall from the football games.)

Banned from the airwaves, tobacco companies turned to films for the next two decades, making a concerted effort to place their products in cinemas across the country and let 40-foot celebrities do the advertising for them. One company, R.J. Reynolds, provided free cigarettes to actors and directors in hopes of convincing them to light up on the big screen.

Starting in the ’90s, public opinion toward smoking on screen turned. Studies showed the pervasive influence movie smoking had on teenagers, and filmmakers became more responsible about showing puffing on screen. In 2008, while filming The Quantum Solace, Daniel Craig refused to smoke cigarettes onscreen, citing health concerns—a far cry from the days when James Bond was smoking three packs a day.

3) You Are Getting Very... Smoky

For decades, Big Tobacco relied on cartoons and mascots to sell their cancer sticks—think Fred Flintstone selling Winstons, Joe Camel, and the Marlboro Man. Starting in the late 1990s, marketers were banned from using youth-friendly images to sell tobacco cigarettes, including on billboards and in magazines.

More recently, tobacco companies have been banned from sponsorship deals, including NASCAR and Formula One. Marlboro tried to circumvent the ad ban by placing a bar code graphic on its Ferrari cars with a more than passing resemblance to its iconic red, white, and black logo. Even after removing the graphic, many charge, the similar colors and brand identification between the two companies creates a “subliminal” association that works in much the same way as advertising.

Of course, that’s only encouraged Philip Morris and Ferrari to continue their partnership, which was recently extended through 2015. Although you’ll never see Marlboro mentioned anywhere on the track, according to some estimates, the subliminal connection between the two brands is worth more than $1 billion.

4) No Nicotine? No Problem

With their advertising opportunities steadily dwindling, cigarette companies turned to a tried and true strategy of all drug pushers: They began to make products more addictive.

According to a 2004 study by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, between 1998 and 2004, nicotine content in 92 out of the 116 brands of cigarettes was found to have risen about 10 percent. Most disturbing? All of these brands were targeted at typically young markets—a transparent attempt to hook teens earlier and make quitting more difficult.

5) Peer-to-Poison Marketing

Banished from magazines, billboards, television and sponsorship deals, what’s a Big Tobacco pusher to do?

Take advantage of the Internet, for starters. Though banned from concert sponsorships, companies like Philip Morris have found ways to associate themselves with the music scene online, sponsoring web promotions such as “The Best of Marlboro Country Music.” Cigarette companies have also set up sites where smokers can sign up for coupons, and have hired young, attractive cigarette pushers to promote special deals at night clubs and college campuses to tempt an incoming class of fresh, healthy lungs.

“It’s evolved to a more focused, direct, one-to-one approach,” said Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Philip Morris, to NPR in 2008. “When was the last time you saw an ad for Marlboro? .... I think there’s still a perception that [people] see Marlboro advertising a great deal, but take a step back and think about it.”

Take a step back and think about it. Finally, some words from Big Tobacco we should heed.

How do you plan on quitting smoking? Let us know in the COMMENTS.

Comments ()