Smoke and Mirrors

Chatterbox applauds the New York Times’ decision to stop publishing tobacco ads. The Times is coming a bit late to the party–The New Yorker, Reader’s Digest, the Deseret News, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Washington Monthly all banned tobacco ads years ago, back when cigarettes loomed larger as an upscale consumer product. (Cigarette ads now constitute less than 1 percent of the paper’s $1 billion in ad revenues, according to yesterday’s account in the Times.) Still, it’s an act of corporate bravery that will probably save a few lives. Better late than never.

Evidence that the Times’ decision is getting other publications to think about this issue–or at least creating embarrassment for them–can be found in today’s Chicago Tribune. Characteristically, the Los Angeles Times responded with wild uncertainty (it lives in constant fear of being out of step with right-thinking opinion). The L.A. Times is “constantly reviewing our advertising policies to make sure they make sense for our community and our customers,” spokesman Mike Lange told the Tribune. The Tribune itself was a little more defiant; a company spokesman told reporter Tim Jones that the paper had already reviewed its policy on tobacco advertising and decided against a ban. People magazine publisher Peter Bauer got all belligerent and managed to make himself sound like a skin-mag entrepreneur (“Our readers are adults who can make their own decisions about what products they buy and don’t buy”). And Sports Illustrated declined to comment, which is what Chatterbox would do if he were a magazine with a heavy youth readership that relies heavily on tobacco ads ($50 million last year–about 15 percent of the total big tobacco spent on all magazine ads).

If the Supreme Court lets a long-delayed Food and Drug Administration rule go into effect, S.I. will be permitted to run tobacco ads only if the ads are graphics-free–just black-and-white text. The rule imposes this restriction on any publication that has more than 2 million readers under the age of 18 or whose under-18 readership constitutes 15 percent or more of its total readership. Many people (including the folks who write editorials at the New York Times) think this violates the First Amendment. But if the rule hadn’t spotlighted this issue in the first place, would the Times voluntarily be rejecting tobacco ads now? It’s a cinch that if the FDA hadn’t made a stink about tobacco billboards, the industry wouldn’t have reached an agreement with the states to take those down. Most of them disappeared last week. If there were mass protests across the land, Chatterbox missed them.

–Timothy Noah