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SELLING A HEALTH HAZARD : Cigarette Ads Have Gone From False Promises to Obscure Images; Soon They May Just Be Gone for Good

July 24, 1988|BRUCE HOROVITZ | Times Staff Writer

When Rob Ramsel was a high school student in Ft. Worth, he and his buddy would sometimes sneak into the restroom and smoke cigarettes. Not just any cigarettes, mind you. Only Benson & Hedges would do. "We liked to mimic the TV commercials," Ramsel said.

Those commercials--shown nearly 20 years ago--featured smokers who couldn't quite adapt to the extra-long size of the cigarettes. People who smoked them kept accidentally breaking off the tips, perhaps against a bus window or even on the front door of someone's house. The ads were always good for a chuckle. But Ramsel isn't just laughing at Benson & Hedges ads anymore. He's appearing in them.

As a result, people are now laughing at Ramsel. After all, he's that guy in the Benson & Hedges print ads shown wearing nothing but his pajama bottoms while standing in front of a roomful of otherwise well-dressed people.

The slogan to the attention-grabbing Benson & Hedges campaign is "For people who like to smoke." So what, then, if some of the people like to smoke while their pajama bottoms hang below their navels? This scenario has already earned Ramsel the nickname "Jammie Man."

Ban May Be Close

Lately, however, Jammie Man has had some second thoughts about the ad. Not enough, though, to coax him out of appearing in a second Benson & Hedges advertisement. "I have some friends who will not do tobacco advertising at all. They know what tobacco can do to people," said Ramsel, who still smokes a pack of Benson & Hedges every day. "But I don't think I can bear the weight of all that. I'm an actor. I saw it as a chance to do a job. It wasn't the easiest decision, but it's not as if I dropped all my morals and said I'd advertise napalm."

Eventually--some say even within the next five years--Ramsel may no longer have the opportunity to advertise either product. As medical links between cigarettes and an array of health problems continue to mount, there are numerous signs that cigarette advertising is on the decline and that an outright ban on all cigarette advertising in the United States may be just years away.

"We're at a critical time in the history of the tobacco industry and tobacco advertising," said David G. Altman, a Stanford University researcher and expert on cigarette marketing. "You now have under 30% of the population smoking. The tobacco companies see the writing on the wall, which is why they're diversifying. A total ban on advertising and marketing of all tobacco products in the United States isn't that far off--possibly within the next five years."

Glamorous Pitchmen

Recently, the pace toward an outright ban seems to have quickened, as court cases test the truthfulness of various claims that tobacco advertisers have made over the years. Experts say health-related issues that some tobacco advertisers downplayed--or even distorted--in the past could prove to be a crushing blow to the future of all cigarette advertising.

Legal challenges are being raised by people who listened to promises of "safe" cigarettes made by cigarette makers through paid "testimonials" by movie stars and physicians. Last month, a six-member jury in Newark, N.J., found that in the 1950s, the Liggett Group, in various advertisements for its Chesterfield and L&M cigarettes, misled the public to think that its cigarettes were not only safe, but in some cases, beneficial.

Chesterfield ran print advertisements that vowed, "Nose, Throat and Accessory Organs Not Adversely Affected by Smoking Cigarettes." Meanwhile, several L&M ads featured glamorous movie stars such as Barbara Stanwyck and Rosalind Russell who claimed that L&M's were "just what the doctor ordered."

Pointing to ads such as these, the federal court jury for the first time found a cigarette company liable in the death of a smoker. The jury ordered Liggett to pay $400,000 in damages to Antonio Cipollone, a retired cable splicer from Little Ferry, N.J. Cipollone's wife, Rose, smoked both L&M and Chesterfield cigarettes for years and died of lung cancer at age 58. Although that verdict is on appeal, it still raises the question about how this court decision could affect future cigarette advertising.

In Canada, most tobacco advertising is being banished. Ads on television and radio are banned already. There will be no advertising in newspapers and magazines after Jan. 1, none on signs and billboards by 1991. Sponsorship of events will also be restricted.

Meanwhile, in the United States, eight different congressional bills that would put a lid on tobacco advertising are under consideration, including one under review by a House subcommittee that would completely ban tobacco advertising in this country. For the first time, new figures from the federal government show a substantial drop in cigarette advertising and marketing. And even advertising trade magazines are projecting its rapid demise.

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