Unlikely Allies: The U.S. Surgeon General and the Marlboro Man

Eric Lawson was born in Glendale, CA, on December 28th, 1941. His father, like half of all Americans at the time, was a cigarette smoker. Eric followed in his father's footsteps and began smoking at an early age.

Though studies about the dangers of tobacco smoke first appeared in Europe in the early 1930's, it wasn't until 1957 that the U.S. Public Health Dept officially postulated a connection between smoking and lung disease. By then, 16 year old Eric Lawson had been hooked on tobacco for two years.

As smokers questioned the safety of cigarettes, Marlboro manufacturer Phillip Morris began pitching its filtered cigarettes (previously marketed exclusively to women) as safe alternatives to traditional, unfiltered smokes. Print and broadcast media were soon flooded with macho 'Marlboro Men' -- cowboys, pilots, hunters, weight lifters, and miners -- smoking filtered cigarettes. Cowboys and western imagery proved most effective in making these cigarettes appealing to men.

In 1962, under pressure by public health groups, U.S. Surgeon General Luther Terry convened a committee of experts to comprehensively review existing tobacco studies. On January 11, 1964 (a Saturday, to minimize impact on the stock market and to ensure Sunday newspaper coverage), he released Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General. According to Terry, the report, "...hit the country like a bombshell. It was front page news and a lead story on every radio and television station in the U.S., and many abroad."

The Surgeon General's report wasn't perfect. The tobacco lobby influenced the committee to insist that smoking be characterized a habit rather than an addiction (though manufacturers already knew of nicotine's addictive properties), and to avoid recommending actual remedies. But the report unambiguously declared cigarettes responsible for the high mortality rates of smokers over non-smokers, and for elevated risks of lung cancer, COPD, and coronary heart disease. More importantly, it noted that quitting smoking diminished those risks.

We don't know what Eric Lawson, by this time smoking up to three packs per day, thought of the Surgeon General's report. There were no quit-smoking programs or telephone quitlines to assist him in quitting, had he wanted to. And the tobacco industry, often aided and abetted by the medical establishment, waged a full-scale assault on anti-smoking research, confusing smokers with contrived debates and illegitimate studies.

Despite this, the report triggered a sea change in public opinion. While only 44% of Americans believed smoking caused cancer in 1958, 78% thought so by 1968. Congress required cigarette hazard warnings on all packs sold in the U.S., and banned cigarette ads on TV and radio.

Meanwhile, Eric Lawson went to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. He became the next face of of the Marlboro Man in 1978, representing the brand in print and billboard ads for three years. He capitalized on his cowboy image to land a number of roles in TV and movie westerns, too.

1986 saw another landmark Surgeon General's Report, released by Dr. C. Everett Koop. It accused the tobacco industry of deceptive advertising, and issued the first government warning about secondhand smoke. Koop called for restrictions on workplace and public smoking, urged government prosecution of the tobacco industry, and envisioned a smoke-free society by 2000. Smoking rates dropped from 38% to 27% during his tenure.

Ironically enough, several Marlboro Men led extra legitimacy to the Surgeon General's cause. Within a year of Koop's report, the first-ever Marlboro Man, David Millar, died of emphysema, generating negative publicity for Phillip Morris.

Wayne McLaren followed in 1992, at age 51. He spent the last two years of his life a vehement anti-tobacco activist, publicly condemning the cigarette advertising he'd been a part of. Images of his rugged visage wasted away by late-stage lung cancer prompted many smokers to quit for good.

Then, just as the U.S. Justice Dept. charged tobacco companies with racketeering, a third Marlboro Man, David McLean, died of lung cancer. His passing helped turn Americans solidly against cigarette manufacturers, and after cigarette billboard ads were banned in 1999, Phillip Morris finally retired the 'Marlboro Man'.   

Although he was unable to quit smoking at the time, Eric Lawson became the next Marlboro Man to speak out against tobacco use. He was particularly proud of this 1997 American Cancer Society PSA parodying the Marlboro Man, and warning against secondhand smoke:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07x6ud24HsY.

Lawson left acting after a movie injury. He continued to smoke. His wife Susan later stated, "He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him, yet he couldn't stop.” He was still smoking heavily in 2006, when he was diagnosed with COPD. He died on Jan. 10, 2014.

A week after Eric Lawson's death, U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak publishedThe Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress. The good news is that an estimated eight million lives have been saved since the original 1964 report. The bad news? Smoking still remains the #1 preventable cause of early death in the U.S.

Nearly 21,000,000 people have been killed by tobacco since 1965, several million of them from secondhand exposure. Annual economic costs of smoking have hit a third of a trillion dollars. Despite the lowest rates of smoking ever (hovering around 20%), the yearly mortality rate has remained well above 400,000 for more than a decade, and isn't projected to drop for years to come. Worst of all, this new report predicts that nearly six million of our youth, cur­rently under 17 years of age, will die prematurely from tobacco disease -- unless we can offer intervention.

Quit-smoking programs are more urgent and relevant than ever, and a big part of how millions of smokers' lives get saved. We intervene effectively, one smoker at a time. Tobacco treatment work supports our Surgeon Generals' campaigns against tobacco addiction, and helps prevent current and potential smokers from suffering the same fate as the Marlboro Man.

KTQ,

Alan Q, CTTS-M

Q Counselor