In the midst of an escalating media war over tobacco this summer, the cigarette industry has complained loudly about bad press. But the industry has benefitted from shoddy journalism — as key facts keep disappearing in clouds of smoke.
Take the case of America Tonight, the prime-time CBS news magazine co-hosted by Deborah Norville. Tobacco companies can't advertise on TV. But if they could, no paid ad would have as much propaganda value as the one-sided "news" segment on July 6 ridiculing Canada's cigarette taxes.
The segment — which focused on cigarette smuggling from the United States to Canada — lit up myths that the U.S. tobacco lobby has been packaging to block higher cigarette taxes in our country.
Proponents say that cigarette tax hikes reduce smoking while raising revenues. But no proponents appeared on the broadcast.
Opponents, though, were quite visible. In sync with them was CBS correspondent Bob McKeown, who seemed to interview himself at one point: "Did those high taxes convince Canadians to kick the habit? No. Last year, smoking in Canada actually increased for the first time in a decade."
If McKeown had interviewed anyone at the Canadian Cancer Society, CBS viewers might have learned that since 1982 — the year cigarette taxes began rising in Canada — smoking has decreased about 40 percent, even more among teenagers.
CBS reporter McKeown continued his self-interview: "The government's hopes for more tax revenue? Well, they went up in smoke, too. Because what high cigarette taxes in Canada did do was create a billion-dollar smuggling industry all along the Canada-U.S. border."
Wrong again. Cigarette tax revenues rose from $2.26 billion in 1982 to $6.3 billion in 1993 (in Canadian dollars). This occurred despite decreased smoking and increased purchases of cigarettes on the black market. (Cigarette taxes in Canada during this period climbed from an average 59 cents to $3.86 per pack.)
One of the on-air experts in the broadcast was Rod Stamler, identified by CBS only as "a former top officer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police." Unnoted was a more relevant and current affiliation: Stamler is a paid consultant on cigarette smuggling for a firm retained by the Canadian Tobacco Manufacturers Council.
CBS presented Stamler saying that organized crime was involved in the smuggling. But no one on the broadcast pointed out how the Canadian tobacco industry encouraged the smuggling — by overexporting, to the U.S., cigarettes which re-entered Canada illegally.
Nor did anyone suggest that smuggling was fostered not by cigarette taxes being too high in Canada — but too low in the United States.
So biased was the America Tonight segment that it was hard not to recall the controversial 1989 moonlighting appearance by co-host Deborah Norville (then a TV anchor for another network) at a Philip Morris USA convention in Hawaii. She was paid to anchor a mock TV show: "Norville tossed soft questions at Philip Morris executives and read promotional copy," reported the New York Times.
Also unmentioned on the broadcast was the fact that CBS is owned by tobacco tycoon Laurence Tisch.
New smoke in the cigarette wars has been generated by a multimillion-dollar blitz of full-page newspaper ads from tobacco companies, many assailing the prospect of higher cigarette taxes.
Philip Morris USA, America's top cigarette producer, bought ads in 40 dailies to reprint — beneath the headline "Were You Misled?" — a lengthy article from the new magazine Forbes MediaCritic. The article challenged the Environmental Protection Agency on its statistical survey of 30 studies examining a link between secondhand smoke and lung cancer in women whose husbands smoke.
The EPA's 1993 finding — that environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) causes lung cancer and damages the respiratory health of children — went beyond statistics. The EPA also cited evidence that ETS contains carcinogenic compounds and can cause cancer in laboratory animals and damage to DNA...and that non-smokers absorb and metabolize significant amounts of ETS.
The key to the Philip Morris ad strategy was the appearance of objectivity. After all, this was no tobacco industry propaganda — it was a reprint of a seemingly unbiased article. "In any controversy," the ad concluded, "facts must matter."
But one fact unmentioned in the ad was that Philip Morris and its subsidiary, Kraft General Foods, donated over $10,000 in 1993 to the research group that employed the Forbes MediaCritic writer.
(Do facts really matter to Philip Morris? "Company Vice President Steve Parrish says he doesn't care how many independent scientists back EPA," reported Associated Press. "He'll never believe secondhand smoke is bad.")
Forbes is known for publishing hatchet jobs on Ralph Nader and other business critics. Its launch of a quarterly on media ethics last year was akin to Bob Packwood starting a publication on sexual etiquette.
At the same time Forbes MediaCritic was denouncing the EPA over secondhand smoke, Forbes magazine published a peculiar article — titled "Thank you for smoking...?" — which argued that smoking may sometimes be good for your health. The writer was identified only as "Nonsmoker, but tolerant."
We too are tolerant nonsmokers. But we're intolerant of deception.