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A TV Comeback For The Marlboro Man

My wife gave up cigarettes when we got married 36 years ago, in a trade for my surrendering coffee. (That’s a story for another day.) Despite a couple of instances of backsliding, by the time our first child arrived in 1986 she had finished smoking for good.

But smoking is an addiction, and addicts know that addictions are for life. So my wife’s reaction to a TV commercial for Vuse electronic cigarettes was hardly shocking. “I have to say that I had cigarette cravings watching the commercial,” she wrote to me in an email last week. “I have had low grade cravings similar to this when I have been around others who smoke. No big deal, but interesting.”

My wife’s television-induced cravings may be no big deal to her, but they are also no accident. There hasn’t been an accident in cigarette marketing for generations. And the R.J. Reynolds Vapor Company – the unit of Reynolds American tobacco company that markets Vuse – has industry roots that go back that far.

It is no longer accurate, if it ever was, to talk about the “cigarette industry.” It is properly understood as the “nicotine delivery industry.” So-called Big Tobacco understands this better than anyone. The industry survived an existential threat in the 1990s by co-opting its adversaries, primarily the states who bore smoking-related health care costs, in a huge financial settlement that gave those states a vested interest in the industry’s continued profitability. Now it is following the same playbook via clever strategic investments in the swelling e-cigarette business, generally known as “vaping.” (Note that while marijuana can also be vaped, for the purposes of this post I will use the term to discuss nicotine delivery.)

Vaping, in which nicotine-laced liquid is heated and then inhaled, is widely considered safer than smoking, which delivers a potpourri of toxic chemicals and particles deep into the lungs. Yet “safer” is not the same as “safe,” as the U.S. surgeon general and multiple health-advocacy groups have warned. Vaping, which is exploding in popularity among American youth, is just as addictive as smoking. E-cigarettes are a plausibly safer substitute for the traditional tobacco variety among people who already smoke, but they are also a gateway to a whole new generation of nicotine consumers. According to the surgeon general, 40% of young e-cigarette users have never smoked traditional tobacco cigarettes.

As Michael Blaha, the director of clinical research at the Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease, explained, nicotine itself is a harmful substance. Besides its addictive properties, it raises blood pressure and increases the risk of heart attack. Nicotine can hamper adolescent brain development and harm developing fetuses. E-cigarettes are also a relatively new product, available to consumers since 2007. The exact chemical makeup of the vapor is not yet known, nor do we have good data on the long-term effects of vaping. This is especially alarming considering vaping’s popularity among teenagers. The surgeon general reported that e-cigarette use among high school students increased by 900% between 2011 and 2015. As of 2018, more high school students than adults used e-cigarettes – an estimated 3.6 million teens.

A variety of officials, including the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, have blamed the various flavors offered by companies like Vuse, Juul and other e-cigarette producers for the product’s popularity among teenagers. The FDA has indicated that it is likely to limit e-cigarette flavors to tobacco, mint and menthol in most cases. The popular fruit flavors will be subject to stricter age verification. But more than fruit flavors, the lack of knowledge surrounding e-cigarettes’ dangers may have contributed to their popularity. Today’s adolescents are generally well aware of the dangers of smoking traditional cigarettes. Vaping, like hookah, may have captured a youth market in part because it is undeservedly seen as safe.

Though this aspect is much less discussed, vaping is also an avenue back to nicotine for the vast market of former American smokers like my wife. Companies have marketed e-cigarettes as a stepping stone to quit entirely, but the FDA has not approved their use as a smoking cessation aid. Data from the National Health Interview Survey suggests that many e-cigarette users also continue to smoke traditional cigarettes. It is worth noting that e-cigarette users they classified as “former smokers” could be people who quit traditional cigarettes after they started vaping – but they could just as easily be people who quit using other methods and later picked up an e-cigarette habit.

As I said, there are no accidents in cigarette marketing.

Cigarette commercials were banned from American television in 1971. This was right around the time my wife – then in her early teens – took up smoking, along with many of her friends. The ban removed from the airwaves that sorry schlemiel who trudged a mile through the desert, past saguaro cacti and (highly stereotyped) bemused Mexicans, for a Reynolds-made Camel.

This ban also spared us further exposure to the Virginia Slims commercials that extolled a slimmer cigarette (the better to fit smaller, female hands) under the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby.” Maybe, but not all that far, considering that the “baby” in the target market was an adult in the midst of fighting for the legal and practical right to earn a living on the same terms as a man. The ads sophomorically depicted women’s former domestic oppression, along with the suffrage movement. At last, the ads suggested, women could smoke without their husbands scolding them. The commercials aren’t only offensive when seen from today’s vantage point; I thought they were idiotic when they were on the air.

But in one sense, they were accurate. Women’s smoking rates were rising rapidly at the time, from far below those of men to nearly catching up. As a result, lung cancer rates surpassed breast cancer rates among women in 1987, with an overall tenfold increase in lung cancer rates between 1959 and 2010 among female American adults. Now that is coming a long way, in a very bad direction.

Looming above all this advertising, on his faithful steed, was the Marlboro Man. Like the Virginia Slims characters, he shilled for Philip Morris, an operating company of tobacco giant Altria until a spin-off in 2008. His purpose was to convince men that Marlboro filtered cigarettes were a manly product, since filtered cigarettes previously had been seen as feminine. The Marlboro Man was so good at his job that his character persisted in print ads and foreign markets until nearly the millennium. Not too bad for a heavy smoker born in the 1950s – and, sadly, better than many of the actors who portrayed the character fared. Five of the men who appeared in Marlboro’s spots eventually died of smoking-related diseases.

The tobacco ban on American television does not apply to e-cigarettes, because technically they are not a tobacco product. This, nicotine purveyors have recognized, is a loophole through which you can ride a horse, or a Camel. So it may not be long before the Marlboro Man makes a comeback.

Altria, the Marlboro Man’s former employer, has taken a 35% stake in Juul, the market leader in e-cigarettes. Reynolds American is all in on Vuse – though with a catch. Reynolds says it will only sell $80 per week of its addictive nicotine smokeless delivery systems to customers. It also pledges to that it will only sell products online to customers who can prove that they are at least 18 years old. Of course, third-party sellers may not be as scrupulous. While 48 states have banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors, enforcement has been spotty.

And what of the customer who finds that $80 per week isn’t enough to satisfy her nicotine cravings? Or the former smoker who returns to her earlier habit due to either the product or its advertising?

For those customers, tobacco remains readily available. Did I mention there are no accidents in cigarette marketing?

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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