New Tobacco Fight: Case Study

Subject: Industry
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Tobacco is a major health hazard and an important economic commodity. If it were not harmful to health there would be no reason to control its use. On the other hand, if the market for tobacco were small there would be little opposition to the regulation of this trade. As a result of the conflict of interest between health and corporate wealth, public policy on tobacco has evolved in an ad hoc fashion. It has emerged as a product of different pressures, including those of the tobacco industry and the public health lobby.

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Should advertisement of tobacco and its allied products be banned completely or partially by state? This is a debate that has been addressed in the case where the 2004 ban of promotion of tobacco advertisement has been discussed with an illustration of the arguments presented by both the sides of this debate. This is not only a case in the United States, but in all other parts of the world. Those seeking to ban tobacco advertising argue that tobacco ought not to be considered an ordinary good, but one self-evidently deserving of extraordinary regulatory attention by the state because of the burden of disease caused by tobacco use.

The supporters of the ban raise their concern on the ethical conduct of the advertisers of tobacco who make misleading and persuasive advertisement which influences the consumers to buy the product. That is why the ban emphasized on advertisements in black and white which negated any form of persuasiveness. The proponents of the ban believed that a “black and white” advertisement will be an informative and not a persuasive ad and will lead to rational decision making and not persuasion. Informative advertisement is ethical as they lead to rational decision making whereas persuasive ads are unethical for they, according to Kantian ethics, affects consumers’ ‘autonomy’ by convincing them to purchase goods which they do not ‘need’ (Santilli 1983).

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Then the ethical question that arises with tobacco advertisement is the question of selectivity in making the advertisement and consumer deception. Because there are limits to the time or space any advertisement occupies in the media, its content cannot possibly cover all aspects of a product’s qualities, its origin, its various uses, and all consequences that might conceivably flow from its use and so on. Instead, advertisers cannot avoid being selective about what they say and infer about their products.

Understandably, in needing to be selective and in intending that advertising should persuade consumers, advertisers select emphases that are predicted to make products seem desirable. Deceptive advertisements can be considered as ‘lies’. So if we follow this line of argument, tobacco ads are unethical as lying is prima facie unethical.

Another issue that the arose is the deception that the advertisers embarked on with ‘promotion through omission’. Another way of approaching the question of whether advertising is misleading is to ask whether there are aspects of a product which if omitted from advertising, would result in consumers being misled. For example, consumer protection laws in many countries insist that financial services advertising make explicit claims about terms of credit, so serious are the consequences for consumers should they be misled.

The questions arising here concern whether there are fundamental issues about a product that should be mandatory in any advertising for it. With tobacco advertising, many argue that the risks of use are so high that, at very least, advertising should be accompanied by detailed health warnings worded so as to maximize their comprehensibility and resonance. However, here many have pointed out the tobacco industry’s long record in constructing advertising designed to mock, distract and generally undermine such health warnings. Tobacco advertisements’ gross neglect of these warnings to the consumers regarding health hazards is unethical.

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The fourth ethical issue that is enumerated is the effect of such advertisements on children. Tobacco marketing does reach youth. Young people are able to name and recognize cigarette ads (Tye et al. 1987) and can also match cigarette brand names with cigarette slogans.8 More than half of current adolescent smokers and approximately one quarter of nonsmoking teens own cigarette promotional items and participate in these campaigns.

Moreover, there is a growing recognition that such advertising and promotion influence teen smoking (Fisher et al. 1991). Longitudinal studies of advertising patterns and young people’s tobacco use demonstrate a positive association between advertising and teenage smoking. In addition, the vast majorities of adolescent smokers prefer the most heavily advertised brands (Chapman 1982) and report that they would smoke the brand whose advertisements they liked most. Clearly there is a growing effect of tobacco ads on children, which is unethical.

These are the issues that had been raised by the supporters of the ban on tobacco advertisement. But the corporate had its own brand of ethics and they too brought about the question of ‘rights’ and the ‘freedom of expression’ in advertisement into question. They postulated that if partial ban was imposed on tobacco advertisement and the nature of the ads then the state was curbing ‘free speech”. Proponents of tobacco advertising have sought to argue that commercial speech is a form of free speech and, therefore, sacrosanct under constitutional guarantees.

Defenders of tobacco advertising tend to assume a free marketing philosophy where any restrictions on advertising are seen as ethically offensive to the sovereignty of business interests. In Milton Friedman’s view this trend would thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their shareholders as possible (1962).

However, governments intervene in marketplaces in many ways, ranging from the outright banning of products already in a marketplace (e.g. thalidomide) or of newly developed products (e.g. many instances of unsafe toys, furniture, etc.), through restrictions on sales, packaging and advertising information requirements, to restrictions and bans on advertising.

The stakeholders of a tobacco company are its employees, shareholders, customers, the viewer of tobacco advertisement, environment, the farmers cultivating tobacco, the ad makers, the government and the society. So the anti-tobacco stakeholders are the government based agencies like the FDA, the senate, the public health department, NGOs, etc. the pro-tobacco stakeholders are the private and the business holders, the farmers, manufacturers, partners of tobacco companies, etc. Here the stakeholders who are worst affected due to a ban of advertisement of tobacco are the farmers who grow tobacco for a livelihood.

So many employees of the tobacco company will loose their job as the companies will have reduced profit, and thus will have lees employees on their rolls. The tobacco companies also argued that the low and middle income group adults who are smokers will be affected by the ban, especially with the clause that they will not be allowed to give any discounts.

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Given all these pro and anti tobacco stakeholders, the ones who will be mostly affected are the manufacturers, their employees, the tobacco farmers, the tobacco companies, and then the tobacco retailers. Following the utilitarian ethical model, we don’t think the adult smokers from the middle and low income groups will be affected majorly due to curbing of discounts. But on a positive side, we doubt if a partial ban on advertisements will help the cause for which the ban is being imposed.

The ban imposed by the government was partial and to a great extent impractical in certain cases. The first policy concern that we have is tobacco advertisement itself. Tobacco is a ‘bad product’ in itself. Leiser (1979) and Lee (1987) argue that ‘the advertisement of a bad product cannot be good’. Critics argue that whatever its effects the intention of tobacco advertisers is by definition to promote tobacco use. The cigarette brand cannot be promoted without promoting smoking itself. If governments have policies to reduce tobacco use, policies that allow tobacco advertising are simply inconsistent with these. So in a country where smoking is not legally prohibited, imposing a ban on advertising the product is irrational.

The other concern that we have is the ban on tobacco advertisements and not tobacco. As for the general products like unsafe toys, medicines, firearms, etc. it is the products which is banned due to its hazardous nature. The proponents of a ban on tobacco advertisement argue that tobacco is hazardous to health, so promoting the product in mass media can be hazardous to public. Then why are these people are insisting on the ban of advertisement of the product and not the product itself which is hazardous in nature?

Even if we consider the ban on tobacco advertisement as a strategy in the attempt to control the use of products that have known potential to affect adversely either those who use them or the general public.

There is no more a right to advertise than there is a ‘right’ to sell. Both activities are frequently subsumed by broader considerations of public benefit, welfare and safety. These considerations can be paternalistic (Dworkin 1983), justified by concern to protect individuals from the consequences of their own behavior, particularly when it can be demonstrated that individuals have inadequate or erroneous knowledge about the range, probability and severity of these consequences, or Millean which is based on concerns to restrain individual liberty if its expression has adverse consequences for others (Mill 1859).

But some libertarians argue that paternalism is ethically unjustified — people should be free to risk harm to them provided that they can demonstrate that they are fully informed about the probability of, and the nature of, the harm they risk. No nation prohibits tobacco, and no internationally recognized public health agency has called for tobacco to be banned. Almost all international public health agencies, though, have called for tobacco advertising to be banned.

Effect of tobacco advertisement on children, this is of critical relevance to any discussion on the ethics of tobacco advertising. It is reasoned that tobacco advertising appeals directed at them or which can be shown to appeal to them are unethical in that they seek or cause to influence consent in people deemed legally incapable of consenting. Rationally a partial ban on tobacco advertisement is impractical when it comes to curbing children viewership.

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Partial bans carry with them an ethical conviction that tobacco advertising should be controlled, but belie this conviction by allowing the very same advertising that is banned to be displayed in the different media still permitted to carry such advertising. Such absurdity can only be interpreted as the product of an ethical duplicity cynically put to the service of collusive governmental and industry posturing about their responsibilities to children.

Apart from the above problems with a partial ban of advertisements of tobacco advertisement another issue that emerges is that, if this ad is being curbed due to malicious persuasion of people by advertisers to consume a hazardous product, then by the same logical extension, the advertisement of fatty food products which give cholesterol and heart diseases and alcohol which causes a perennial problem of lungs should also be banned. The imagery of the advertisement of these products also promotes their use which causes health problems. Alcohol and alcohol related problems are costing the American economy millions in health care.

On a daily basis the American public is fed images of juicy burgers; tantalizing hot-dogs; succulent pizzas; and any number of other of fast foods. One cannot miss them. These advertisements come to us through television, magazines, billboards etc. and are costing billions. The advertisers apparently do not take into account that two-thirds of the American population is overweight, of which one-third is obese. Neither do they take into account that fatty food leads to high cholesterol; leading to high blood pressure; resulting in heart attacks and ultimately death. Then why are the later products not being put under regulatory control?

Lobbying means deliberate attempt to influence political decisions through various forms of advocacy directed at policymakers on behalf of another person, organization or group. It is not ethical as long as it is done in a fair and transparent manner. If we consider that the tobacco lobbyists lobbied against the advertisement ban in a fair and transparent manner their conduct was ethical. But the question that arises is that of ‘common good’.

Lobbyists are advocates. That means they represent a particular side of an issue. According to the Thomson Gale Legal Encyclopedia: “The role lobbyists play in the legislative arena can be compared to that of lawyers in the judicial arena. Just as lawyers provide the tier of fact (judge or jury) with points of view on the legal issues pertaining to a case, so do lobbyists provide local, state, and federal policymakers with points of view on public policy issues.”

Tobacco is only legal today because it was introduced to the community on a wide scale decades before its health dangers were understood. If tobacco smoking were discovered tomorrow, it is unlikely that any responsible government anywhere in the world would allow tobacco to be manufactured, much less advertised, but legislators cannot now outlaw a product to which a quarter of the adult population is addicted, and no-one would seriously suggest that they should. The product may well be sold legally under certain circumstances, but it cannot be ethical to promote it when it causes so much preventable death and disability.

Banning its promotion seems a reasonable middle ground (Koop 1989). Hence we may consider lobbying against tobacco advertisement ban as unethical. In similar line the lobbying against alcohol is unethical as it is an immoral product but that against fatty food may not be.


Lobbyist’s obligation is to be fair to the other side. In the advocacy model, lobbyists may do anything on behalf of their cause as long as it is not outright immoral or illegal. An ethical approach to lobbying must ensure that someone stands up for the common good. This is the only restriction we intend to place on lobbying groups.


Santilli PC. (1983) “The informative and persuasive functions of advertising: a moral appraisal.” Business Ethics; 2: 27-34.

Tye JB, Warner KE, Glaritz SA. (1987) “Tobacco advertising and consumption: evidence of a causal relationship.” Journal of Public Health Policy.;8: 492-508.

Fisher PM. Schwartz MP, Richards JW, Golstein AO, Rojas TH. (1991) “Brand logo recognition by children aged 3 to 6 years.” Journal of the American Medical Association.;266: 3145-3148.

Chapman S, Fitzgerald B. (1982) “Brand preferences and advertising recall in adolescent smokers: some implications for health promotion.” American Journal Public Health. 72: 491-494.

Friedman M, (1962) Capitalism and freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Leiser BM. (1979) “Beyond fraud and deception: the moral uses of advertising.” In: Donaldson T, Wehane PH. eds. Ethical issues in business. Englewood Cuffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, pp59-66.

Lee K-H. (1987) “The informative and persuasive functions of advertising: a moral appraisal — a further comment.” Business Ethics 1987; 6: 55-7.

Dworkin G. (1983) “Paternalism.” Monist; 56: 64-84.

Mill J.S. On liberty. (1859) In: Wollheim R. ed. Three essays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, pp. 1-141.

Koop CE. (1989) A parting shot at tobacco. Journal of the American Medical Association; 262: 2894-2895.