Recently the major cigarette companies announced that they were voluntarily suspending advertising in college publications. In explaining this rather surprising move the companies said they had "always considered smoking an adult habit" and had no desire to encourage young people to start smoking. The major purpose of advertising, they said, was to persuade smokers (adults) to change brands.
Under pressure for some time from health groups who maintain there is a definite connection between smoking and lung cancer, the companies frankly admitted they had made the decision on their own to avoid being forced into it by legislation. In effect, then, the action was taken primarily for public relations reasons.
It was a highly hypocritical gesture. If the tobacco men really believe smoking is a cause of cancer they should admit it, stop advertising, and probably stop producing cigarettes. If they are genuinely not persuaded by current evidence, then the suspension of advertising is bad business. Why should the companies voluntarily refrain from recruiting college smokers if there is no health hazard involved?
The insincerity of the gesture is clear from the fact that cigarette advertisements still appear in magazines, on billboards and on television where young people will see them. Some advertising is placed in magazines with nearly an exclusively youthful readership. Presumably these advertisements are intended to influence only committed smokers; but are they less inviting to newcomers than advertisements in college publications?
The real effect of the suspension will not be a decrease in college smoking. Rather there will be a decrease in control by the companies over college smoking tastes and severe financial difficulties for college publications. Instead of helping college students, the sudden suspension will work great harm.
Cigarette advertising is an important fraction of the total revenue of most college newspapers and magazines. It often provides the money to permit a paper to be financially independent, a prerequisite for editorial freedom. In the Harvard CRIMSON last year cigarette advertising totalled more than $7,000, or almost ten per cent of all display advertising revenue. Without the cigarette contracts the CRIMSON might have been in the red.
Big college dailies like the CRIMSON, the Michigan Daily, and the Daily Californian will be hurt by the suspension, but they should have enough institutional strength to absorb the loss while searching for replacements. Unfortunately, only a handful of papers are in this category. Many will be forced to go to their administration or student government organization for financial help. Bi-weeklies may have to cut back to weekly publication, and weeklies and dailies may have to reduce their sizes. New college magazines, which usually face even tougher financial problems than the newspapers, will find it increasingly difficult to stay alive.
If the tobacco companies are going to continue advertising at all, they clearly should reconsider their recent decision. Advertising in college publications not only helped decide which companies would benefit from the college market; it also made a significant contribution to education.