UBC Reports | Vol. 49 | No. 6 | Jun.
A Lot of Hot Air
Tobacco advertising and the myth of the light
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.
Its 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
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
The more time you spend researching this area, the
more you find theyre up to their sly old tricks,
says Pollay. Theyre always pursuing their self-interest
of profit. Theyre 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 Jerseys 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 wasnt 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 theyre 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. Thats very appealing to
Pollay says advertising to women initially served to legitimize
the activity of smoking. It later made connections to the
womens movement -- remember the youve 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 its 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
There is nothing in it that is very liberating,
says Pollay of this target marketing. There is nothing
liberating about smoking
Its an equal opportunity
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/.