Last month, a full-page ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes lit up an important conversation in both our letters section and in the Weekly’s virtual office. That initial ad was followed by a $100,000 order from a national ad agency for future cigarette advertising in 2021.
In our 32 years in business, we have published many controversial points of view, both in the editorial and advertising parts of the paper. While we’ve published a few cigarette ads in the past, we’d never had this size ad buy put before us by Big Tobacco.
We are an adult publication and have run many controversial ads. Ads for beer, wine and booze, any of which can wreak havoc on personal health. Ads for pesticide companies and high-end landscapers who use glyphosate to kill weeds – and which can threaten our drinking water or pets. Ads from casinos, adult video stores, ads for cannabis, ads for abortion and against abortion. Ads for all kinds of medical procedures, many quite invasive or experimental. Ads that feature thin women in expensive clothes that some readers find offensive.
This is not a complete list.
Cigarettes, however, are different. There is no dispute on their impact. The American Cancer Society reports that tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., accounting for about 1 in 5 deaths each year. On average, people who smoke die about 10 years earlier than people who have never smoked.
Tobacco companies have a long and sordid history of creating a product that is addictive and deadly, and using every legal and marketing strategy available to expand their customer base. They added fruit flavors to make the product more tasty (now illegal). They’ve levered celebrities to sell their product, including Bing Crosby and Ronald Reagan. They’ve published misleading health claims, that low-tar cigarettes are better for you (they are not). They’ve pushed for product placements in TV and movies, including in kid-oriented shows like The Flintstones.
In general, the default position of the Weekly has been this: If the business is legal then we publish the ads. Since the advertising in the Weekly does not influence our editorial coverage, the inclusion of ads for liquor, a political candidate, or anything, does not mean those advertisers can expect positive coverage, or coverage at all. Keeping editorial and advertising independent is central to what we do.
Hustler magazine’s publisher Larry Flynt, who died last week, became a recognized free speech advocate after facing many lawsuits. Flynt said, “Freedom of speech doesn’t protect speech you like; it protects speech you don’t like… the First Amendment is only important if you are going to offend somebody.”
While I agree with that, cigarettes are in a class of their own. Knowing what we know about cigarettes conflicts with our value for free speech.
I was raised in a household where cigarettes were ever present, in cocktail glasses, in fancy cigarette cases. Both my parents smoked daily for decades and my mother developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a common and horrific respiratory disease for smokers. It was a painful death to witness.
I still know a number of people who smoke casually, others regularly. My longtime friend from second grade has been addicted to cigarettes for nearly 50 years. Today Andy is a trauma surgeon and in a recent email exchange he didn’t mince words: “I hate it, seriously. Tobacco is death. I wish I had never started. There is no question that they will shorten my time here with you.”
It’s a difficult time for all media companies. As was reported last week in the New York Times, roughly a quarter of newspapers in the U.S. have shuttered since 2004 – mostly weeklies – and 50 percent of newspaper jobs eliminated in that same period.
Fortunately, that’s not been Monterey County Weekly’s story. We’re holding our own despite this difficult time. We had over 1 million pageviews last month, more than 45,000 of you have subscribed to Monterey County NOW and our newsstands get depleted every week. Still, turning down a $100,000 ad buy has a huge impact on our finances. We could put that money to good use.
Our mission is to inspire independent thinking and conscious action, etc. Today I’m here to report that we remain committed to that mission, tobacco-free.