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Pa. Daily Bans Tobacco Ads after Columnist's Plea

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Pa. Daily Bans Tobacco Ads after Columnist's Plea

Article excerpt

Publisher considers region's history of black lung disease and decrees ban after two days of consultation

The Times Leader of Wilkes-Barre, Pa., banned tobacco ads last week following a plea from star columnist Steve Corbett, who claimed cigarette smoking was "directly related" to the deaths of his mother and father.

Corbett's father James. a highly decorated Pennsylvania state trooper, died last year and his mother Dorothy. a homemaker, died 10 years ago, and Corbett said that seeing a recent full-page color ad in his newspaper for Kool Natural Lights made "the wheels start going in my brain."

A smoker himself for 20 years before he shook the habit, Corbett said he became enraged by the ad's promise, "You'll enjoy the perfectly balanced taste."

"You want balanced? I'll give you balanced," wrote Corbett in a column last week.

"My father was balanced when he died -- perfectly balanced between the front and back of a cold metal coffin that held his lung cancer-ridden body," he recalled.

"My mother wasn't so lucky," he added. "The last time I saw her conscious before she died, her left eye was totally off center from the shock of the first of two massive strokes...."

Corbett told his newspaper's president and publisher, Mark Contreras, "You and me got to talk, boss."

They met for drinks, as they had periodically, at the bar of nearby Martini restaurant. Corbett conceded, "I expected that selling him on the idea of banning tobacco advertising would be like trying to pry raw meat from a wolf's jaws."

But Contreras was ready to listen. He knew the region's painful history of black lung disease among coal miners, and he was concerned about underage teenagers he saw smoking each morning when he parked his car in the Times Leader's lot, which adjoins Coughlin High School.

Recalling the bar-stool conversation, Corbett said, "I could see the door was open, and I decided I would move right through."

Contreras told E&P he admires Corbett's "integrity and passion" and added. "A little bit more than half the time I agree with him strongly."

A spokesman for the company that makes Kool Natural Lights said the ads are not designed to appeal to underage youths -- or even adults who are nonsmokers.

"The purpose of advertising is to try to build brand loyalty and to try to get smokers of competitive brands to switch to yours," said Joe Helewicz. vice president for public affairs of Brown & Williamson, the Louisville-based company that makes Kool Natural Lights.

Helewicz said people do not start smoking cigarettes as a result of ads -- despite the contention of cigarette critics that the tobacco makers view the "minors market" as their "future market."

"I'll bet you 100 of 100 people (who start smoking) will say, 'I was at a party, and I was with friends.' It was a peer-type situation. I don't know anyone who saw an ad and said, 'I'll take up smoking,"' said Helewicz.

Moreover, underage smoking has been increasing "year after year" in Scandinavian countries that ban all forms of tobacco ads, said Helewicz.

Asked about tobacco critics who question the sincerity of the manufacturers' anti-smoking efforts, Helewicz said, "People are going to believe what they want to believe."

A spokesman for the industry's Tobacco Institute said, "We're not doing anything wrong. We sell a legal product to an adult audience."

Spokesman Tom Lauria added newspapers that "censor commercial speech" have an obligation "to explain why their readers are unable to interpret these commercial messages for themselves."

In Wilkes-Barre, Contreras spent two days consulting five executives and managers, including his ad director. "I considered that we would be taking in less revenue." said Contreras, "and I specifically requested that I not know the number before we made the decision. …

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