Got a light? | March 14, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

- March 14, 2007

Got a light?

Vintage cigarette ad exhibit focuses on industry manipulation

by Sue Dremann

The kindly looking doctor in a white lab coat holds up a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes, gazing at them fondly.

"20,679 Physicians say 'Luckies are less irritating.' Your Throat Protection against irritation, against cough," the colorful ad proclaims.

Dr. Robert Jackler, professor and chair of otolaryngology at Stanford, was struck by the ad's audacious misuse of the physician's iconic image of authority. He purchased the 1940s-era image at a Marin County flea market several years ago, never realizing it would birth an exhibit.

Now, Jackler and his wife, artist Laurie Jackler, have amassed hundreds the glossy images, which they will share with the public at an exhibition at Stanford's Lane Medical Library through May.

Wise, beneficent physicians, scientists, celebrities, sports stars, Santa Claus and even babies were used by cigarette companies in a deadly, manipulative campaign to lure new young smokers from 1920 to 1954.

The exhibit sheds light on tobacco company tactics by showing how orchestrated campaigns have worked over time. Together with Robert Proctor, PhD, a Stanford professor of history and science, they are writing a book featuring many of the vintage ads.

The exhibition has poignancy for Robert, whose mother, a long-term smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after the couple began their collection six months ago, he said.

The exhibit's title, "Not a cough in a carload," comes from an Old Gold cigarette slogan, just one of many that billed cigarettes as being soothing and healthful.

Although the couple initially focused on ads featuring doctors, the exhibit also features celebrities, from W.C. Fields ("Even a sword swallower needs the throat-ease of Old Gold") to Lucille Ball. Many of them died from lung cancer, he said.

The ads themselves are visually stunning, Laurie said. To bring that same vibrancy to the vintage collection, she digitally restored the the aging, yellowed ads for the exhibit.

One of her favorites is of Audrey Hepburn wearing a hat brimmed with cigarettes. Another stunner, a Lucky Strike ad from 1932, depicts a man blowing smoke rings -- one of which becomes a diamond engagement ring slipping onto the finger of a woman's outstretched hand. "Forever and ever."

Robert called the campaigns "an era of complete hucksterism."

As the public began to associate oral and lung cancers with smoking, tobacco companies embarked on campaigns that shifted with the prevailing social and political winds of the times. The golden age of cigarette ads ended in 1954, when the Federal Trade Commission clamped down on tobacco companies making health claims.

Tobacco was a known cause of oral cancer as early as the 18th century, but the link to lung cancer wasn't accepted until the early 1940s and '50s, Robert said. When physician Isaac Adler made the connection in 1912, he was forced to apologize. At the time, lung cancer disease was considered rare.

But by the 1920s, the public was beginning to take a closer look, forcing tobacco companies to shift strategies. People were calling cigarettes "cancer nails." The iconic image of the doctor in a white lab coat appeared in ads for three decades, often backed by pseudoscience. The industry sponsored "research institutes," and handed out cartons of cigarettes at medical conventions, Robert said.

At a booth near the door, doctors would be given a pack of Camels.

"The doctor would put the pack in his shirt pocket, and when he left, another person would ask, 'What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?' and the doctor would pull out the pack of Camels. That's how they could claim, 'The brand named most by doctors,'" he said.

Often, ads contained vignettes: the doctor offering soothing assurances; making a house call to an elderly grandmother; in the lab creating antibiotics -- images that instilled a connection of compassion and health.

Over time, cigarettes were claimed to aid everything from weight loss to digestion.

The idea wasn't so far-fetched. In the 19th century, smoking was believed to help lower the risk of deadly diseases such as diphtheria and typhus.

During the London plague of 1665, children were instructed to smoke in the classroom as a way to avoid getting the disease according to Robert Proctor, who has studied the history of the tobacco industry for 20 years and helped put together the exhibition.

The menthol cigarette caused a huge jump in sales. Kool put forth a campaign calling their brand "a breath of fresh air."

Kools were targeted to African Americans in the 1950s as part of a lifestyle that included cool jazz, Dr. Jackler said. The success of that campaign is still apparent today -- 68 percent of African American smokers use menthol cigarettes, he added.

"Inhale to your heart's content," an ad intoned.

Women became early targets of tobacco companies when cigarettes became symbols of emancipation. Trading on the women's suffrage movement, the American Tobacco Company advertised cigarettes to women as "torches of freedom." And in a 1912 ad, a woman proclaimed, "I wish I were a man. (So I could smoke.)"

The campaign was successful. Only 5 percent of American women smoked in 1923, but that number peaked at 33 percent in 1965, Proctor said.

"In the 1950s, lung cancer was a rare disease. In 2000, it was killing nearly 70,000 people per year. Lung cancer surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death among women in 1987," he said.

Filters helped boost cigarette sales dramatically, according to Proctor. In 1950, only 2 percent of smokers smoked a filter cigarette. In 2005, that number was 99 percent, he said. But the most deadly industrial setting of the 1960s was the filter factory. At least one brand of filter cigarettes, the Kent micronite filter, was made of asbestos.

"Smokers inhaled millions of deadly fibers per year and were never told of the hazards," he said.

Today, 5.7 trillion cigarettes are smoked every year, and cigarettes are still targeted at 13- to 21-year-olds, he said. The exploitation has merely taken a different form.

Although some medical schools won't take tobacco company money for research, others -- including Stanford, which accepted $2.6 million in Philip Morris support -- still do, Proctor said. In the 1980s, 26 of 28 major baseball stadiums had Marlboro or Winston billboards in the outfield.

"We still have Virginia Slims women's tennis, Winston Cup NASCAR and the Marlboro Cup horse race," he said.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be e-mailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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