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UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun. 5, 2003

A Lot of Hot Air

Tobacco advertising and the myth of the “light” cigarette

By Erica Smishek

There is no such thing as a safe cigarette -- and tobacco companies who market “light” versions are just blowing smoke, says UBC Commerce Prof. Rick Pollay.

“Light cigarettes have been marketed as if they are safer,” says Pollay, who has studied tobacco advertising for more than 15 years. “But there is no safe cigarette. It’s a lie, a ruse.”

Last month, a B.C. man launched a suit against Imperial Tobacco, alleging that the company engaged in “deceptive trade practices” in the marketing of its “light” and “mild” cigarette brands. The suit is the first of its kind in Canada and is expected to draw support from other current and former smokers of light brands.

Pollay has testified at numerous tobacco-related trials throughout North America. Quebec Superior Court judge Andre Denis called him “a virtual living encyclopedia on tobacco advertising and a scrupulously rigorous marketing researcher” at a trial last year in which Denis upheld the constitutionality of the Canadian Tobacco Act.

In an Oregon case, Pollay testified that tobacco companies created the low-tar or “light” cigarette to give smokers an excuse not to quit amid a growing anti-smoking atmosphere.

His research shows that marketers essentially created the illusion of a healthier cigarette, thanks in part to virtuous brand names and descriptors such as “mild” and “ultra” to reassure smokers and discourage them from quitting the habit.

“The more time you spend researching this area, the more you find they’re up to their sly old tricks,” says Pollay. “They’re always pursuing their self-interest of profit. They’re never really giving public interest or public health any concern.”

Pollay grew up in New England in the 1950s and smoked Marlboros for 15 years. He joined UBC in 1970 as a specialist in marketing, consumer behavior and the social and cultural effects of advertising. He turned his research focus to tobacco in 1987 when asked by lawyers to study cigarette advertising of the 1930s to 1950s in order to testify in New Jersey’s Cipollone trial.

“At that stage of my career, I liked the richness of it,” Pollay explains. “The tobacco industry and its regulation is very interdisciplinary. It involves political, medical and epidemiological aspects; it also involves public health, law, psychology, commerce and ethics.

“[Tobacco companies] are always doing something wrong. If it wasn’t always illegal, it was certainly immoral.”

His studies of advertising reveal much about how the tactics of the tobacco industry have changed when targeting different types of audiences (men/women, started/concerned addicts), introducing new technologies (filters, “light” products) and adapting to new regulations or events (ban of TV advertising, the health scare of the 1950s).

“They know what they’re doing,” he says matter-of-factly.

In addition to advertisements, Pollay has also reviewed corporate documents from the tobacco industry and trade information to find evidence of the industry targeting to women and youth.

“Take the heroic independence of the Marlboro cowboy,” he says. “He has no foreman, no parents, no bullies. There is no sheriff in Marlboro country. This cowboy is free to be and do his own thing. That’s very appealing to adolescents.”

Pollay says advertising to women initially served to legitimize the activity of smoking. It later made connections to the women’s movement -- remember the “you’ve come a long way, baby” campaign of the 1960s? -- and now focuses on fashion and beauty through sponsorships of Canadian fashion designers or the use of digitally distorted images that make women appear as tall and slim as possible.

Cancer researchers say it’s working. When the Canadian Cancer Society reported in April that the lung cancer death rate among women has jumped 46 per cent since 1988, they drew a direct line to years of attention paid to young women by tobacco marketers.

“There is nothing in it that is very liberating,” says Pollay of this target marketing. “There is nothing liberating about smoking… It’s an equal opportunity tragedy.”

Pollay has collected more than 10,000 cigarette advertisements spanning the 20th century, with film copies donated to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. The Richard W. Pollay 20th Century Tobacco Advertisement Collection can be searched online at http://roswell.tobaccodocuments.org/.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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