Good magazines should not take tobacco ads—I’m looking at you, Atlantic Monthly

Glossy magazines should not take tobacco ads.

I love the Atlantic Monthly. I read many of the gifted writers there. I am gratified to see the magazine’s recent commercial and critical successes. I am not happy to see the Atlantic–like many other glossy mags–taking advertisements from Altria, parent company of Philip Morris, the nation’s largest tobacco company.

Cigarettes are not ordinary consumer products. Altria and its industry peers are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. These firms’ unethical behavior over many decades has caused millions of avoidable and agonizing deaths in the United States and around the world. I know something about two of these deaths. My movie-star handsome father-in-law could have played the Marlboro man on television—right up to the moment he was diagnosed with lung cancer, shriveled down to a husk, and died. My mother-in-law died of complications of lung cancer not long after.

Tobacco companies want to reach opinion elites, to present themselves as responsible, implicitly reformed corporate citizens. That’s not what they are, no matter how many ads they buy to tout their “We Card” campaign against youth smoking. Altria and its peers should be regulated stringently and heavily taxed to discourage further cigarette consumption. Outside the realm of public policy, they should be treated with the coolest of civilities.

I know it’s hard for charities and many nonprofit organizations to refuse Altria’s money. I’m not going to get all high-and-mighty about some struggling soup kitchen that decides to take it. A venerable institution such as Atlantic Monthly can do a lot better.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

19 thoughts on “Good magazines should not take tobacco ads—I’m looking at you, Atlantic Monthly”

  1. I’m surprised you claim to still love The Atlantic. The Atlantic was once a great magazine, and even a handful of years ago was arguably a good one, but could hardly manage to lay claim to that title today. I say this as someone who let a decade-long subscription lapse, and recently refused a “please come back” offer of a dollar an issue. The short pieces have always been insufferably smug, vapid, and devoid of thought, and the back-of-the-book arts section was always patchy, but of late the long-form pieces, once the magazine’s saving grace, have ranged from the useless to the actively insulting, and if anything the quality of the other sections has declined. I find that my life is improved by not encountering the entitlement of Corby Kummer, the glibness of Megan McArdle, the empty cynicism of Joshua Green, or the sheer absurdity of wannabe-artist Benjamin Schwarz, a man who clearly does not wish to read any book unless at least a fifth of its pages are full-color glossy illustrations, as the literature editor. I feel badly for James Fallows, who apparently is willing to ride this sinking ship all the way to the bottom, and for Ta-Nehisi Coates, who boarded the ship right as it accelerated on its trip beneath the waves. But I will not mourn The Atlantic no matter how many tobacco ads they refuse.

    And when looking at all those smiling faces on the linked page, it’s worth remembering that the majority of them have never had a word in the print edition, and 5 or 10% of them (seeing as how there are around 200 people on that page) probably account for 90% of the content in the print edition. Although it does seem that they’re producing a huge amount of web-only content, of which I was unaware. I wonder if any of it gets viewed.

    More generally, I’m not sure I agree with you. This is a legal product, and as you acknowledge the magazine business is not an easy one in which to make ends meet. I rather like what The Nation says in its advertising policy:

    we start with strong presumption against banning advertisers because we disapprove of, or even abhor, their political or social views. But we reserve (and exercise) the right to attack them in our editorial columns.

    It seems to me that the answer is to run the ad, and to call Philip-Morris the names it deserves.

  2. In defense of modern tobacco companies, they aren’t as repugnant as they once were. They can’t lie anywhere near as easily as they once did; they can’t market to children as easily, etc. In their actions and impact, they aren’t what they were when they were helping kill your in-laws (and my condolences for that; how awful).

    Intelligent government action has mitigated a lot of the damage that tobacco once did. I think the Atlantic should be more embarrassed about Megan McArdle than Philip Morris.

  3. Political football: I hope you’re right, but I have a sneaking feeling those companies are behaving as badly as ever, just not in the U.S. I don’t know that for a fact, however. Anybody know?

  4. Warren Terra: not to mention, they got rid of the cryptic crossword, which was always one of the best parts of the entire magazine.

  5. Harold, this is a magazine which hired Michael Kelly, and gives an annual press award in his name [I wonder – do the criteria specifically include lying?]. It’s a magazine who’s ‘business and economics editor’ is Megan McArdle, who never saw a calculation which she wasn’t willing to ‘accidentally’ get wrong in the direction she likes.

  6. But but…just yesterday:

    The head of cigarette-maker Philip Morris International Inc. told a cancer nurse yesterday that although cigarettes are “harmful” and “addictive,” it is not that hard to quit.

  7. I also no longer subscribe, but complaining about the decline of the once-great magazine IMHO is distracting away from the argument that Big Tobacco is “greenwashing” their image. My wife deals with the I know it’s hard for charities and many nonprofit organizations to refuse … money every day, and you can overcome that by doing some reporting.

  8. Warren,

    I disagree on advertising policy. Read carefully what The Nation says:

    we start with strong presumption against banning advertisers because we disapprove of, or even abhor, their political or social views.

    OK, but I don’t care what the tobacco companies’ political or social opinions are. I care about the way they make their money, which is by selling an addictive poison. They kill people for money. And when The Atlantic sells them an ad the magazine is abetting the crime.

  9. I can second everything Warren Terra said, including letting my long-time subscription lapse. I almost canceled it during the Michael Kelly years, but despite the sharp turn to the right it took then, it was at least interesting. It improved under Cullen Murphy, but nosedived when it moved to Washington and he didn’t.

  10. Warren–You refer to me as “a man who clearly does not wish to read any book unless at least a fifth of its pages are full-color glossy illustrations”–that’s a recklessly inaccurate comment. Go to the Atlantic’s website and look up all my signed reviews (only one of my unsigned reviews has covered art). Tally them up (it’ll take some time), and report here. Benjamin Schwarz

  11. Mr. Schwarz,
    I am surprised that you would bother to reply to my comment. I did engage in hyperbole, and perhaps it’s good to recall that real people are involved, and feelings can get hurt. I apologize for having overstepped such boundaries.

    That said, for about a decade I read every word published in The Atlantic, and it became a running theme – even something of a source of amusement for me – that books you chose to write upon were dominated by books about art, artists, architecture, fashion, and Hollywood, not to mention overlaps among those topics. This was especially the case for the section of brief comments on books that started the arts and literature section of each issue. A similar emphasis on cultural topics over history, and lighter cultural topics in preference to more serious ones, was also in evidence in the arts and literature section of the magazine more broadly.

  12. My attitude towards the tobacco companies is somewhat mixed. On the one hand, my father’s heart disease was probably at least promoted by his smoking, and, given my allergy to tobacco, (Nearly expired from my lungs seizing up during a school field trip that took me down wind of a tobacco field.) life was hellish until smoking became less common.

    And yet, I have trouble attributing ALL the evil to them. It simply is a fact that the companies, which would be better understood as nicotine companies, made attempts to market their real product free of the remarkably carcinogenic tobacco leaf. And the government shot them all down. Not that the companies did this out of charitable motives; They just disliked having paying customers expire on them. But the fact remains that they DID make the effort, and the government insisted, (Still insists!) that recreational nicotine not be marketed without tobacco.

    How many people have died as a result of that policy? Which is really just a result of the same prohibitionist attitudes that currently have the government cracking down on “electronic cigarettes”, which have no particular health issues.

    As for the Atlantic, yeah, I’d probably respect them more if they didn’t advertise tobacco. They’d probably counter that my respect for a magazine that went broke, and ceased circulation, wouldn’t do them much good…

  13. Warren–Thank you for your reply, but again, you’re grossly mistaken. I have certainly reviewed books about “art, artists, architecture, fashion, and Hollywood,” but my reviews have been preponderantly devoted to books about history and sociology. And *very* serious history, at that. Tally them up.

  14. Brett, I agree that nicotine delivery is the core product. If we could supply nicotine maintenance independently of a burning stick, fewer people would die. Unfortunately, cigs seem to be a very attractive delivery vehicle for it. Substitute products have a real challenge gaining consumer acceptance.

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