We don't know what the tobacco industry has prepared in response to ABC News' punishing report whose title says it all: "Never Say Die: How the Cigarette Companies Keep On Winning." But we can imagine that it's not going to be friendly.
It's hard to recall another hour of network news television this year more thoroughly condemning of a whole industry. Although this report could have gone much further to include the ways in which tobacco companies have managed to escape and/or win lawsuits pressed by smokers, it nevertheless leaves these companies with no ground to stand on. This portrait of tobacco companies as enemies of the American people is unmistakable, unforgiving and solid, gutsy journalism.
Jennings delivers a three-part attack. The first salvo is against the ways cigarettes are marketed to adolescents, focusing on the familiar Joe Camel ad campaign. Former R.J. Reynolds market researcher Diane Burrows tells Jennings that she doesn't view cool old Joe as a cartoon character, but "a person who exhibits a certain way of looking at life." Kind of like, we guess, the Marlboro men were great guys who exhibited a certain way of roping horses.
Corporate subterfuge is smoked out by Camel salespeople who tell Jennings that they were told to target stores near high schools; one of them also tells Jennings, with rare candor, that she could market cigarettes to 13-year-olds. Of course, as Food and Drug Administration head David Kessler reminds, one of three of these teen customers will later die from a smoking-related disease.
Kessler himself has become a key target of the GOP majority in Congress, where his attempts to regulate tobacco as an addictive substance have crashed headlong into a political wall built partly with tobacco lobby money. Republican congressmen deny to Jennings that investigations into Kessler's administrative practices have anything to do with his campaign against the tobacco industry--which, by the way, funds the politicians' campaign coffers.
Among those politicians is candidate Bob Dole who looks positively queasy trying to explain why he doesn't think tobacco is addictive and a killer. Dole's fellow Republican, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, shows backbone here, declaring that tobacco is, in effect, a dangerous drug.
But Jennings' third salvo is the charm. He examines how the tobacco lobby, with the bipartisan aid of California Gov. Pete Wilson and then-Speaker Willie Brown helped gut effective anti-smoking TV ads funded by cigarette sales taxes. State Sen. Tom Hayden charges that Brown is a liar for claiming that none of his votes could be viewed as pro-tobacco, especially, as this report claims, since Brown received more tobacco industry money during his tenure than any other legislator in the United States.
Money talks, and it's how the tobacco industry has the ear of elected officials. ABC News and Jennings have effectively broken in on this corrupt conversation.
* "Peter Jennings Reporting: Never Say Die: How the Cigarette Companies Keep on Winning" airs at 10 tonight on KABC-TV Channel 7.