Cigarette warnings, punishments are 50 years too late

by Jim Longworth

In 1964, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued a report in which he cited the health risks associated with smoking. That led to the passage of a new law requiring cigarette manufacturers to print a warning on every pack. In the 50 years since then, we’ve seen scientific revelations, massive litigation, fines and settlements; yet still, tobacco companies and the government continue to lock horns over the extent of damage that smoking can cause, and how best to rectify and prevent any further harm to consumers.

Whether planned or coincidental, last week’s anniversary of Terry’s landmark report was marked by two major developments. First, our current Surgeon General Boris Lushniak announced that in addition to causing lung disease and cancer, smoking also causes diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, macular degeneration, and liver and colon cancer.

The second development occurred six days earlier, when an agreement was reached in US District Court requiring tobacco companies to undertake a massive mea culpa. It will include admitting in print and broadcast ads that smoking is addictive, and that cigarette manufacturers manipulated nicotine delivery in their product so as to feed and better sustain that addiction. According to the Huffington Post’s Michael Felberbaum, the agreement (which follows a 2012 ruling ordering big tobacco to pay for corrective statements in advertisements) requires each of the companies to publish full-page ads in the Sunday edition of at least 35 newspapers and their respective websites. They must also air prime-time TV ads on ABC, CBS or NBC five times per week for a year, and print their transgressions on cigarette packs for the next two years.

These so called corrective ads must also be preceded with the statement that tobacco companies “deliberately deceived the American public,” and they must include the following statistics: Smoking kills more people than murder, AIDS, suicide, car crashes and alcohol combined, and that second-hand smoke kills over 38,000 Americans each year.

The affected companies are calling the corrective ads “forced public confessions… designed to shame and humiliate” them. If so, then that’s okay with the American Heart Association, American Cancer Society and American Lung Association, who released a joint statement saying that the ads are “necessary reminders that tobacco’s devastating toll over the past 50 years is no accident. It stems directly from the tobacco industry’s deceptive and even illegal practices.”

What strikes me about the latest health warnings and punitive actions is that it’s taken far too long for us to get to this point. Noted scientists Wyndren and Graham reported as far back as 1950 that 96.5 percent of lung cancer patients were heavy smokers. And in 1963, an in-house attorney for Brown & Williamson circulated a memo admitting that nicotine is addictive and that “we are in the business of selling nicotine — an addictive drug.”

Think of the lives that might have been saved had someone from B&W grown a pair 50 years ago, and blown the whistle on their manufacturing practices. That didn’t happen until 1996 when Jeffrey Wigand, a B&W researcher went public with confidential information about nicotine manipulation. Would people have still smoked had they known the real health risks and accelerated addictive properties of cigarettes early on? Probably, but they should have at least had access to the facts.

The other amazing thing about this 50-year saga is that no one in a position of leadership at the major tobacco companies has ever gone to prison. When the heads of the seven major cigarette makers testified on Capitol Hill in 1994, all seven men said under oath that nicotine is not addictive. The Waxman committee knew those CEOs were lying because six years earlier the surgeon general ruled that nicotine was, in fact, an addictive drug.

Yet no one went to jail for committing perjury. Let some poor slob off the street commit perjury in court and he goes to the slammer. Let some party perv spike a woman’s drink with a date rape drug, and he’ll get to see the inside of a jail. But let tobacco executives lie about spiking their product with a drug that has helped to kill millions of people, and their only punishment is to fund some foundations and run apology ads.

For eight years I watched my father die a little bit each day from COPD. He had been a heavy smoker for over 40 years, then managed to quit, and was smokefree for the last 20 years of his life. But it was too late. The damage to his lungs had been done. Tobacco company executives didn’t force my dad to smoke cigarettes, but we now know they did everything they could to make sure he kept smoking.

Thanks to cigarette makers and their addictive product, thousands of people live the last years of their lives in a sort of prison, tethered to oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. Meanwhile, tobacco bigwigs are living large, untethered, and complaining that having to finally (and publicly) tell the truth will somehow shame and humiliate them. Their feigned suffering would be laughable if my heart wasn’t so heavy. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).