When Harvard historian of science Allan Brandt was a child, he couldn’t help but notice one thing in particular when in the car with his family — the cigarette advertising billboards. At the time, there was a very unique billboard that advertised Camel cigarettes, which actually smoked “rings” from the board. His young mind was captivated by how cool the board looked — and presumably, unaware of the dangers of the product the board was advertising.
As time passed, it became increasingly clear to Brandt and to the American public that smoking cigarettes was bad for you. Brandt’s most recent book – The Cigarette Century, was awarded the Bancroft Prize in 2008. In Brandt’s words, cigarettes are the “most dangerous product ever produced in such large quantities.” And indeed, the numbers are shocking — over 480,000 Americans die annually of tobacco-related diseases.
Given such obvious problems associated with cigarettes, Brandt started wondering, “How could something so bad for you be so advertised in such bold ways?”
The answer, Brandt explained to a Duke audience gathered on Nov. 11 for the 2015 Boyarsky Lecture in Law, Medicine and Ethics, was manipulation — the American public was being grossly manipulated by the bold advertising of cigarettes. Brandt talked about Mr. Edward Bernays, who, according to Brandt, is one of the main founders of the concept of modern public relations, made extensive efforts to put smoking into the mainstream media. One of Bernays’ biggest achievements was the widespread introduction of smoking to Hollywood. The efforts to introduce smoking to mainstream media worked amazingly well. By the mid-1950s, nearly half of all Americans were smoking. To put this into perspective, at the turn of the 20th century, nearly no Americans were smoking!
However, as more and more research proved that cigarettes were actually harmful to Americans’ health, another curious phenomenon happened, where cigarette companies were actually funding their own research.
Brandt pointed out how this was a thinly disguised attempt to publish misleading conclusions about cigarettes to the public by establishing it as “science.” Such biased research funding occurs today in other industries as well, such as for oil companies, for research concerning climate change.
However, public health campaigns still showed measurable positive impact — today it is evident that there is a declining trend in the number of smokers in America. However, wouldn’t that mean that the cigarette industry would die down? According to Brandt, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. The cigarette industries have now moved to exporting cigarettes to the developing world, where populations are less educated, and there are fewer regulations concerning such sales.
According to Brandt, in 2000, four million people died — two million died in the developed world, and two million in the developing world. By the year 2030, over 10 million people total will be killed by cigarette use — three million in developed nations, and seven million in developing nations. The rapid proliferation in such developing countries due to lack of education and awareness is heavily evident, especially with the much higher rate of childhood smoking. It is heavily evident that most of the disease fatalities will be borne by developing nations in the coming years, and will ensure copious profits for cigarette companies for years to come.
While Brandt did acknowledge the very persistent growth of the cigarette companies in the near future, he did not rule out that it was still possible to fight against this. By working together, we can all help bring awareness to the parts of the world where cigarettes are being advertised to uneducated people.