What Would Happen If Cigarette Advertising and Promotion Were Banned?


John E. Calfee and Debra Jones Ringold (1990) ,"What Would Happen If Cigarette Advertising and Promotion Were Banned?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 474-479.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 474-479


John E. Calfee, University of Maryland

Debra Jones Ringold, University of Baltimore

We cannot answer to anyone's satisfaction the question raised in the title to this paper. Rather, we have two more limited objectives. First, we hope to demonstrate that a realistic inquiry into the probable effects of banning cigarette advertising is essential before pursuing a ban as public policy This imperative arises from history, particularly the series of disappointments encountered in past interventions in the cigarette market and in many other markets. Much of this disappointment, we believe, stems from the failure to think in concrete terms about what outcomes the proposed intervention is likely to bring. Second, we will summarize- what we think are the most likely results of a comprehensive cigarette advertising ban, in view of the record of the past fifty years of increasingly regulated marketing of cigarettes.


Early in 1970, Congress prepared to enact a ban on broadcast advertising for cigarettes. This was regarded as a nearly certain means for reducing smoking because broadcast advertising was the main promotional device for the dominant brands of the day. The special beauty of the ban lay in the appeal that broadcast advertising has for teenagers, who (then as now) watch too much TV and read too little. But support for the broadcast ban was far from universal, and in fact public opinion polls at the time showed only minority support (Roper Center 1970). A particularly interesting dissent came from psychologist Eugene Levitt, a researcher into youthful behavior who served on the board of directors for the Indiana section of the American Cancer Society. In a trenchant 1970 article, Levitt asked a troubling question: why did anyone expect a broadcast ad ban to reduce youth smoking, in view of the universal finding of behavioral research that young persons' decision to smoke was associated primarily with peer and parental influence, plus a short list of other factors, none of which were cigarette advertising? (Also see Levitt and Edwards 1970). Levitt was especially hard on the Federal Trade Commission, which supported the ban without offering any evidence beyond pure intuition as to the likely effects of the ban. Worse, the broadcast ban would also bring to an end the millions of dollars' worth of anti-smoking messages that broadcasters had been required to subsidize under the current version of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine. Levitt thought it likely that the impact of these anti-smoking messages on young persons exceeded the extremely limited impact of cigarette advertising .

The broadcast ban was no sooner implemented than doubts emerged on a larger scale. Industry support for the ban, little noticed before the law passed, became increasingly meaningful to those who wished to limit smoking. By 1977, even a task force at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (home of the Surgeon General's office) recommended lifting the ban, at least for low tar and nicotine cigarettes (Warner 1979). That the broadcast ad ban failed in its purpose is now all but an article of faith among students of the cigarette market and of advertising restrictions (Warner 1979; Doron 1979a&b). Numerous studies have failed to show that the partial ban brought a substantial dampening of demand, and most studies have concluded that a substantial increase in demand arose from the end of subsidized anti-smoking messages (Warner 1979; McAuliffe 1987). Commentators have also noted that the ban probably aided the cigarette industry financially (Doron 1979a/b; Schuster, et al. 1987;1, a conjecture that received support in the one study to address this topic in a rigorous manner (Mitchell and Mulherin 1988).

Other major federal interventions in the cigarette market also regulated information. Most prominent have been the mandated health warnings, which were required on labels by a 1965 law, required in ads by FTC action in 1972, and then l reformulated in 1984 legislation as a rotating set of I four more specific warnings. Each step has met with disappointment, a declaration that no good had been I achieved, and often, plans to improve the method (Drew 1965; FTC 1981; Blum 1988; Richards et al. 1988). As Wilkie pointed out in 1985, even the most recent change, the rotating warnings strongly recommended by the FTC, was undertaken with no particular goal as to consumer awareness. Less prominent regulatory interventions have been received with similar dismay. The 1954-55 FTC Cigarette Advertising Guides probably helped the industry survive the first cancer scare by banning claims that suggested the physical effects of smoking (Business Week; Fortune 1953 and 1963;

Calfee 1985, 1986; McAuliffe 1988). The 1960 FTC ban on tar and nicotine claims encountered severe criticism from such anti-smoking groups as Readers Digest and the American Cancer Society and, later, from federal health agencies including the Public Health Service and the Interagency Committee on Smoking and Health (The New Republic 1966; Time 1966; Miller and Monahan 1966). The 1966 FTC decision to allow tar and nicotine claims was generally applauded (except by the industry) but the FTC's 1972 decision to make tar and nicotine figures mandatory was criticized as conveying no additional market benefit (Posner 1979; Calfee 1985).


The central problem now remains the one so well articulated by Levitt in 1970: a shortage of specific goals that an ad ban is expected to achieve. Several analysts (e.g., Warner et al. 1986) have noted that possible goals fall roughly into two categories: (a) improved consumer understanding of the health effects of smoking, and (b) reduced smoking. In both cases, possible gains must be balanced against possible losses.

Consider health information first. In 1980, the Surgeon General laid out a series of benchmarks for consumer awareness of smoking and health, to be achieved by 1990. These benchmarks included awareness by 85% of consumers that smoking is a factor in chronic obstructive lung disease, 90% for lung cancer and certain other cancers, and 85% for heart disease. A recent report from the federal Office of Smoking and Health, reviewing survey data collected in 1985, concluded that "in general . . . the 1990 objectives concerning the populations's knowledge of the health consequences of cigarette smoking have been met" (Shopland and Brown 1987). We must ask ourselves what further improvements could be expected from a ban on cigarette advertising. One cannot reasonably require absolute awareness levels exceeding the ones laid out in 1980 for broad illness categories (cf. Jacoby and Hoyer 1982 on "baseline" miscomprehension). Presumably, goals are narrower. One possible goal is to increase awareness of more specific relationships such as those involving smoking and gallstones or cancer of the bladder. Another possible goal, perhaps more interesting, is to increase the degree to which smokers "personalize" information on health effects (Fishbein 1977; Cohen 1989; FTC 1981), but it is not clear what standards would be appropriate for this kind of awareness. Or one could think in terms of increased awareness by young persons of health effects, but young people already have greater awareness of these matters than the population at large (Shopland and Brown 1987).

Thus when we consider consumer information, we are in effect asking, will the ban make things get even better, or more precisely, get even better even faster? A realistic appraisal would advance evidence on how advertising adversely affects these goals, and would take note of what has been achieved in other markets. How do consumer awareness levels in the cigarette market compare with those in markets in which consumers are thought to be reasonably well informed? In the absence of such evidence, one must be cautious in claiming that an ad ban will bring substantial improvements to a market in which awareness of health effects has already surpassed most standards set by the Office of Smoking and Health.

Now consider goals in terms of behavior. Per capita cigarette sales have been declining in this country al roughly one to two percent per year for about fifteen years (FTC, 1967 and later; U.S. Public Health Service 1989). Few large industrial nations, with or without advertising, match this record of reduced smoking (Boddewyn 1986; New Zealand 1989). Would a ban accelerate this rate of decline, or perhaps increase the decline here relative to declines in nations that leave cigarette advertising untouched? Perhaps the ban would suppress smoking initiation among teenagers. To do so, however, the ban would have to improve upon the strong reduction in teen smoking already seen in the last decade and a half, during which the percentage of graduating high school seniors who smoke daily declined from 27% to 20% between 1975 and 1985 (NIDA 1984 and 1985). Yet the evidence linking advertising and youth smoking remains as weak as it was when-Levitt wrote in 1970 (U.S. Public Health Service 1979; Krohn, et al. 1986; Moschis 1989.)

Given this history and current situation, one must ask what if any favorable changes a ban is likely to bring, beyond what is already occurring.


How is a ban on cigarette advertising and promotion likely to affect consumer information and smoking behavior? We begin by noting the importance of market incentives. One must look beyond the bald fact that cigarette manufacturers wish their advertising to sell cigarettes. When a product is enveloped in adverse health information, sellers have an incentive to emphasize this adverse information in advertising, in order to increase market shares. A substantial body of evidence suggests that such a "fear"-based strategy has often been employed in the cigarette market (Hanley 1929; Business Week; Consumers Report 1957; Schelling 1978; cal?& 1985, 1986; Ringold and Calfee 1989; McAuliffe 1988). The impulse to follow this strategy moderates or overcomes the offsetting desire to reassure smokers. This impulse, combined with the presence of mandatory health warnings and tar and nicotine information, and stringent regulatory control over positive claims in cigarette advertising, means that it is far from clear that when one eliminates cigarette advertising, one eliminates a factor that suppresses health information about smoking (Schelling 1978). Recent content analysis has in fact found that most specific messages in current cigarette advertising consist of-mandated warnings, mandated tar and nicotine information, and voluntary emphasis on tar and nicotine content (Ringold and Calfee 1989).

We offer only a few words on the complex issue of whether cigarette advertising distorts media coverage of smoking and health. It is common to suppose that elementary economic intuition indicates cigarette advertisers are in a position to distort health information in the press, particularly in news magazines (Warner 1985; Weiss and Burke 1986; Whelan 1981). But individual sellers have an incentive to advertise even when the advertising helps subsidize adverse health information about smoking. This is because the adverse health information hurts the entire industry, whereas the advertising aids mainly the brand paying for the advertising. This fact greatly decreases the credibility of threats to withhold ads systematically from publications that report on smoking and health. Thus it is no surprise that cigarette firms continued to advertise in the late 1960s even though their ads subsidized anti-smoking messages that were widely regarded as having a major role in the contemporaneous decrease in smoking. In fact, the industry wished to bring such advertising to an end, but competitive pressure to advertise was sufficiently strong so that only concerted action (which would violate antitrust laws) could achieve a voluntary ban on broadcast advertising (Schneider, et al. 1982). It is equally unsurprising that advertising continues today on a vigorous scale in major daily newspapers and the dominant news weeklies, precisely the outlets the provide the most comprehensive information on smoking and health. Overall, it seems unlikely that inherent economic forces cause the cigarette industry to have more than the slightest effect on market-wide reporting on smoking and health.

A large literature suggests that advertising plays a weak role in expanding long-term industry demand for mature products (Assmus et al. 1984). This in turn suggests that eliminating advertising is unlikely to have a negative effect on sales in a market that is the embodiment of maturity. Of particular significance is econometric analysis of advertising and sales, analysis that is probably more extensive for this market than for any other. Econometric results suggest little if any negative effect on sales from small decreases in advertising, and similarly find little or no change from huge decreases such as occurred when broadcast advertising was banned in the U.S. (Hamilton 1972; Warner 1979; McAuliffe 1987 and 1988; U. S. Public Health Service 1989, chap. 7). International data are largely consistent with this view. Hamilton's 1975 survey and Boddewyn's 1986 comparison of nations with and without bans, and nations before and after bans, finds little apparent effect from bans. A more recent study by the New Zealand Toxic Substances Board (1989) unintentionally provides supporting data showing little difference between countries with and without advertising bans. A recent study by the federal Office on Smoking and Health of smoking prevalence in six Western nations provides little reason to think that the comprehensive ad ban in Norway has brought smoking reductions exceeding those in less regulated countries (Pierce 1989).

All this strongly suggests that a cessation of cigarette advertising would have little effect on sales. Indeed, it is entirely possible that present-day cigarette advertising, with its plethora of health warnings and incessant reminders that tar and nicotine should be avoided, dampens rather than increases overall sales (Schelling 1978). Moreover, there are reasons to believe that advertising supports a mix of cigarette types substantially lower in tar and nicotine than would be the case without advertising. The history of tar and nicotine advertising in this country is punctuated with both prohibitions of, and governmental support for such advertising. This record strongly indicates that advertising hastens and helps maintain acceptance of lower yield cigarettes (Calfee 1985, 1986). The health benefits of lower tar cigarettes are clear in the case of lung cancer, in the sense that epidemiological evidence linking smoking and lung cancer also manifests a progressively weaker link for lower yield cigarettes (Stellman and Garfinkel 1986; Peto 1985 and references therein). Correlational evidence on smoking and heart disease does not display a similarly strong link between cigarette yield and heart disease (Kaufman, et al., 1983), but this finding is inconclusive in view of the fact that controlled intervention studies have thus far generally failed to support correlation-based predictions linking smoking and heart ailments (Rose, et al. 1982; Hjermann, et al. 1981; Multiple Risk Factor 1982). Leading experts on smoking and health continue to recommend world-wide use of lower yield cigarettes (Peto 1985; Participants 1985). We believe it likely that an end to advertising would bring a regression in the market toward the much higher yield cigarettes of former years, just as happened when tar and nicotine advertising was temporarily halted during 1955-57 and in the early 1960s (Miller and Monahan 1966; Calfee 1985).

However doubtful the proposition that a comprehensive ban would reduce sales, the immediate effect of such a ban on the financial health of the industry seems clearer. Promotional expenditures would almost certainly decrease substantially, as happened in 1971. Prices are likely to remain stable or increase because the ban would remove the main competitive tool for lower-cost "generic" brands. Thus a ban would probably increase industry profits, as apparently happened after the broadcast ban. Yet the industry opposes the ban, apparently in all sincerity. This is probably accounted for by the fact that a blanket ban on promotion could be the harbinger of more stringent constraints on smoking itself_especially if, as seems likely, the ban itself brings no visible improvement in the market.

One other aspect of the movement to ban cigarette advertising bears mention. Congressional attention has recently turned to the notion of limiting cigarette advertising to "tombstone" ads, i.e., ads that contain brand name, tar and nicotine content (perhaps) and the Surgeon General's warnings. This is not the place for an extended analysis of this approach. But many of the same caveats continue to apply. Whether the tombstone plan could accomplish any well-articulated goal is unclear. If a total ban is unlikely to dampen sales, the same may apply to a ban of all but tombstone advertising. Regulatory history is not encouraging; much the same kind of regulation has been attempted in advertising for stocks and bonds, with extremely dubious effects on the market (Stigler 1964; Jarrell 1981; Shoeman 1986). The long history of affirmative disclosure requirements in FTC advertising regulation is similarly unencouraging (Wilkie 1982). Moreover, tombstone advertising would provide little support for lower-yield cigarettes, because advertising for lower-yield brands must persuade smokers that a given brand offers a favorable trade-off between flavor and yield. This cannot be done through tombstone ads. The resulting constraints on promoting low-yield cigarettes would remove most market emphasis on the advisability of avoiding tar and nicotine. In general, there seems little reason to think the tombstone device would be superior to what we have now.

Overall, then, we expect that a ban on cigarette advertising and promotion would bring: (a) little if any improvement in consumer information on health effects of smoking, particularly in the many areas in which consumer awareness has already reached nearly the highest imaginable level; (b) little if any change in recent downward trends in smoking behavior, absent striking new health information, exceptionally vigorous anti-smoking campaigns, or major changes in cigarette taxes; (c) some regression toward higher tar and nicotine yield; (d) a possibility of higher cigarette prices; (e) higher industry profits; and (f) possibly, encouragement for greater legislatively created restrictions on smoking itself.


That a total ban on cigarette advertising would be a fateful restriction on freedom can hardly be denied. Such a step calls for persuasive reasons to believe the results would resound decisively to the benefit of smokers and the population generally. Yet one can hardly claim that the benefits of a ban would outweigh its subtle and far-reaching costs without at least specifying approximately how the ban would alter those observable quantities that are routinely invoked when explaining why the cigarette market has failed so completely as to call for extreme measures. What is needed is not a detailed set of predictions, but merely a set of goals and forecasts sufficiently concrete to allow a rough assessment of what is at stake in the ban proposal.

Articulating goals forces one to confront difficult questions. What does cigarette advertising really do (as opposed to what sellers would like it to do)? Is a logical extension of measures tried before likely to produce results strikingly different from those obtained in the past? Are the real goals of a ban even confined to advertising matters_that is, is the ban proposed for what the ban itself will do, or mainly as a prelude for other measures that have nothing to do with advertising and promotion? After all, we are all familiar with regulations designed for one purpose but used for another (see, e.g., "Antitrust and Economic Efficiency," 1985).

The proposal to ban cigarette advertising and promotion has all the signs of high hopes undiluted by realistic assessment. As such, it is likely to bring both disappointment and pressure for progressively "tougher" measures, also unaccompanied by concrete expectations. Those who advocate a ban usually do so without specifying concretely what the ban would do, instead seeing the ban as but one part of a "comprehensive" strategy to reduce smoking (e.g., Warner 1987; Cohen 1989). Such an outlook seems to suggest that expectations for a ban can be held in abeyance until after the ban is achieved and society can move on to other measures. One must ask whether there are specific goals for the ban when considered in conjunction with other components of this strategy, or is the entire plan supported primarily by good intentions? To suggest embarking on an ad ban without any concrete expectations at all is to invite bad legislation. If the ban were enacted, powerful restrictions would have been imposed on markets without any means for judging whether the restrictions were necessary or even beneficial.


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John E. Calfee, University of Maryland
Debra Jones Ringold, University of Baltimore


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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