The American tobacco industry uses its substantial advertising revenue to discourage magazines from publishing stories on a major health hazard — cigarette smoking.
That was the conclusion of an article published by the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) in its February, 1980, newsletter which was also released in a press conference in San Francisco in January, 1980. Despite the serious charge, it received little press coverage.
ACSH’s examination of the reporting record of major national magazines showed that most which accepted cigarette advertising have not published a single major story on the health dangers of smoking during the last five years.
The ACSH article also cited an earlier Columbia Journalism Review survey of coverage of the cigarette-cancer link in leading national magazines over a seven year period.
CJR Managing Editor R.C. Smith reported a “striking and disturbing” pattern. 1n magazines that accept cigarette advertising, he wrote, “I was unable to find a single article in seven years of publication, that would have given readers any clear notion of the nature and extent of the medical and social havoc being wreaked by the cigarette-smoking habit.” He concluded that “advertising revenues can indeed silence the editors of American magazines.”
One example of the kind of pressure wielded by cigarette companies against magazines that refuse to be silenced involves the investigative monthly Mother Jones. Tobacco company advertising contracts were cancelled following the publication of articles on smoking hazards in the April 1979, and January 1980, issues of Mother Jones.
Another example of the power of the tobacco industry to suppress information was provided last year when ACSH declared July as “Cigarette Independence Month.” ACSH asked the editors of ten leading women’s magazines — Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, Mademoiselle, Ms., McCall’s, Redbook, Seventeen, Vogue, and Working Woman — to participate editorially in independence month.” The editor of each magazine was asked to feature an article in their July, 1980, issue on such topics as why women who smoke have an earlier menopause than nonsmokers, how women who use oral contraceptive pills are especially imperiled by cigarette smoking, why female smokers die 19 years earlier on the average than women who never smoked, and what dangers unborn children incur when their mothers smoke. ACSH also offered technical assistance to the magazines for the preparation of those articles.
The magazines had used a similar cooperative arrangement to focus attention on the Equal Rights Amendment and ACSH hoped that this collective approach would ensure that no one magazine’s ad revenue would be in jeopardy. The response was entirely negative. Not one of the ten magazines was willing to participate.
Elizabeth K. Whelan, Executive Director of ACSH, also reported that a press conference on that topic was totally ignored by newspapers, although broadcast media, which may not accept cigarette advertising, were well represented, “It now appears,” Whelan added, “that newspapers, as well as magazines, avoid this story because of concern about tobacco ad revenues.”
Dr. Whelan provided additional insight into the scope of the problem; “I frequently write on health topics for women’s magazines, and have been told repeatedly by editors to stay away from the subject of tobacco. The suppression of the smoking story is not even limited to the media. A food industry trade group recently told me not to mention smoking in my keynote speech to a meeting of food editors because one of the major corporate sponsors of the meeting is a subsidiary of a tobacco company.”
There is little question that this issue deserves significant media attention. During the 1970’s more than two million individuals died from smoking related diseases in the United States alone. According to the American Cancer Society cigarettes are responsible for 80 percent of the 98,000 lung cancer deaths that occur each year. But tobacco also is implicated in a host of other serious illnesses including heart disease, emphysema, gastric ulcers and bronchitis, plus cancer of the bladder, oral cavity, pancreas and other sites. Even more tragic than this self-inflicted harm is the damage to unborn fetuses that can occur when a pregnant woman smokes.
The extraordinary “conspiracy of silence” between the tobacco industry and the print media concerning the hazards of cigarette smoking qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1980.”
ACSH News & Views, February 1980, “Conspiracy of Silence?,” by Beverly Mosher and Margaret J. Sheridan; ACSH press release, San Francisco, January 29, 1980, “New Report Says Tobacco Industry Uses Ad Revenue to Discourage Anti-smoking Magazine Stories;” Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan, ACSH Executive Director, June 18, 1980, personal letter.