Tobacco's Road to Hollywood

Two stories with which the media were once obsessed briefly re-emerged this month. Gary Condit's political career ended when he got clobbered in the Democratic primary, and a week later a New York Times piece dealt with just-revealed putative wrongdoing on the part of liberals' longtime whipping boy, the evil, evil tobacco industry.

Forget Condit (until he's indicted, that is). Let's focus on that second story. Best be seated for this one; it's a real bombshell.

The peg for the Times article was a new report detailing attempts in the 1980s and early '90s by four tobacco companies - American Tobacco Company, Brown and Williamson, Philip Morris, and R. J. Reynolds - to place their wares in movies and, in the cases of Morris and Reynolds in the early '80s, on television shows as well.

It is unclear the degree to which cigarette advertising entices children to start smoking, but for the sake of argument, let's suppose it does. And since we don't want children smoking, we can agree that Hollywood ought to be careful about how it presents tobacco use in youth-oriented fare.

So if Hollywood was being used by those awful tobacco companies to promote smoking to children, that is a bad thing, and worthy of a major piece in the Times. The only problem is that this just isn't the focus of the report, much of which has to do with movies, TV programs, and celebrities that didn't especially interest the children of the '80s.

For example, Kori Titus from the Sacramento branch of the American Lung Association declared to Times reporter Rick Lyman that "one of the most insidious revelations" in the report was that R. J. Reynolds worked with the Los Angeles public-relations firm Rogers and Cowan to, in the report's words, "encourage personal [tobacco] use by key [entertainment-] industry leaders." Titus contended that the companies "wanted to make sure Hollywood stayed hooked on tobacco, because actors who smoke are more likely to smoke in public or want to smoke on screen."

A large part of this encouragement consisted of gratis distribution of tobacco to those actors - which, when you think about it, is pretty pathetic. As MPAA president Jack Valenti rhetorically asked Lyman, "If you're a movie star, why do you need anybody to give you a pack of cigarettes?"

It might have made some sense to supply tobacco to Tom Cruise or to another actor who had plenty of young fans back then, but that's not what the report found. Instead, the free smokes were provided to the likes of Maureen O'Sullivan, Liv Ullmann, Shelley Winters, and Jerry Lewis.

With all due respect to these fine thespians, can you name me four actors with less youth appeal than they?

Ullmann, the youngest in that group by almost fourteen years (and she was then in her forties) was a '60s and '70s art-house draw, nothing more. O'Sullivan, Winters, and Lewis were, to be blunt, well past their primes. These four generated roughly as much box office during the '80s as Cruise did in the opening weekend of "Top Gun."

On television it's the same (non-) story. The report found a similar effort, again involving some long-in-the-tooth personalities, to warp the minds of impressionable youth. Proof? The head of Rogers and Cowan wrote to a Reynolds executive, informing him that his firm had placed product in the "green rooms of the major TV talk shows...During the last few days we have been able to get Zsa Zsa Gabor and [novelist] Harold Robbins to smoke during the taping of 'The Merv Griffin Show.'"

Zsa Zsa Gabor?

All that suggests that the Rogers and Cowan/R. J. Reynolds collaboration was meant not to induce the young to start smoking, but to persuade the middle-aged and older not to stop. Only the most hardcore anti-tobacco zealot would fail to distinguish between the two goals in ethical terms.

One anecdote in the report points up the ideology-driven brainlock to which many anti-smoking crusaders are prone. It mentions that in 1983, an advertisement for Kool cigarettes ran before showings of a G-rated Disney film, but neither those who protested the appearance of the ad in that context nor the authors of this report seem to understand that the ad was directed not at the children in the audience, but rather at the parents who accompanied them to the theater, and that if one or both parents of a child smoke, that will influence that child's tobacco use infinitely more than one ad, or a thousand ads, ever could.

Ads, and even product placement, generally are easy to recognize for what they are. What Hollywood sells in the realm of ideas is often subtler, and some of those ideas pollute the soul and mind as surely as tobacco pollutes the body.