Think back to the last time you saw a television commercial advertising cigarettes. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. If you’re drawing a blank, it’s because cigarette ads on TV were banned all the way back in 1970. Starting this Sunday, however, these ads will be back — but now cigarette companies will air ads are telling the public not to smoke, according to CNN. After a nearly 20-year battle between cigarette companies and federal courts, Philip Morris USA and British American Tobacco will add anti-smoking ads that tell consumers exactly how dangerous smoking is to the health of the smoker and to the folks who breathe in secondhand smoke to their advertising budget.
The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by the Clinton Administration’s Department of Justice (DOJ), that accused tobacco companies of lying to the American public about the negative health ramifications of smoking. The lawsuit, which was filed in 1999, was settled in 2006. But coming to an agreement about the wording of the anti-smoking ads has taken over 10 years, according to CNN. The new ads contain startling statistics about the danger of cigarette smoking. “More people die every year from smoking than from murder, AIDS, suicide, drugs, car crashes, and alcohol, combined,” one of the commercials reads.
Despite television ads being banned nearly 40 years ago, the tobacco industry spends nearly $9 billion on other forms of advertising in the United States alone.
The court-ordered commercials are very different from the anti-smoking ads created by government agencies and nonprofit organizations you may be used to seeing. While anti-smoking commercials that are produced voluntarily rely on graphic visuals and testimonials from smokers and non-smokers alike about the detrimental effects of smoking, the commercials from the tobacco companies are more similar to a PowerPoint presentation. Black words appear in front of a white background, and a female voice reads them with little inflection. “Cigarette companies intentionally designed cigarettes with enough nicotine to create and sustain addiction,” one slide reads.
Robin Koval, president of Truth Initiative, has said that these ads are not engaging, according to ABC News. "It's black type scrolling on a white screen with the most uninteresting voice in the background,” she said.
These plain commercials come with a $30 million price tag and are ordered to air during prime time, five times a day, Monday through Thursday. They will run for a year. In addition to television commercials, cigarette companies must also pay for full-page ads in the Sunday edition of newspapers. These ads will run five times over the course of four months in 50 national, daily newspapers and on their websites, according to ABC.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 15 percent of U.S. adults were current smokers in 2015. Of those smokers, over 75 percent smoked everyday. That number is down from smoking rates in 2014 (17 percent) and 2013 (18 percent). The CDC's report did not include electronic cigarettes.
Some anti-smoking experts have their doubts about whether these anti-smoking ads will be effective. In 2016, newspaper circulation was down to its lowest level since 1945, and MoffettNathanson Research reports that cable TV declined for all age groups in 2017, with viewership among younger audiences dropping the most. Nielsen TV data states that less than five percent of today's network TV viewers are under 25. “That’s not where young people’s eyeballs are,” Koval told the Wall Street Journal.
Former smokers also doubt the usefulness of the new ads. Ellie Mixter-Keller, a 62-year-old who said she used to smoke a pack a day, told the Chicago Tribune that the ads were terrible. "They weren't very compelling ads. I just don't know if I would have cared about any of that," she said.
It’s not the 1960s anymore. There has been extensive research on the harmful effects of smoking cigarettes. If commercials featuring comedians, rappers, and folks who had to have their voicebox removed aren’t compelling enough to stop someone from smoking, a court-ordered commercial that's just black text on a white background probably won’t do the trick either.