Hucksterism and the tobacco industry

Americans over the years have usually been able to identify blatant hucksterism in advertising. As with Dorothy and her unusual friends visiting the Emerald City, the curtain is eventually pulled aside and the ''wizard'' is seen for what he is, an imposter of sorts, pretending to be what in fact he is not. One suspects, therefore, that the American people will not be taken in by a hard-sell advertising campaign now being waged by several major cigarette manufacturers.

One bit of hype involves a national computer-based ''public opinion poll'' reportedly showing what Americans think about various topics of the day. There is nothing wrong with the idea of polling, assuming the results reflect genuine national sentiments. But there is something distasteful about using the trappings of polling for a public relations venture -- i.e, getting the results of the poll and, not surprisingly, the name of the cigarette firm conducting the poll on television news broadcasts. Cigarettes, it must be recalled, are banned from television advertising.

The other venture involves advertising spots placed at the top and bottom of the sports pages of newspapers. The ads suggest that the page is a sports ''scoreboard'' presented by the sponsoring cigarette company. Some 200 or so newspapers have wisely rejected the advertising because it suggests that the cigarette firm controls the layout and content of the page. Unfortunately, over 300 papers are said to have approved carrying the spots.

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What is disturbing about all this is not only the boosterism involved. It is the fact that, at a time when tobacco firms are stepping up advertising campaigns to boost sales -- in part by targeting women as potential new smokers -- the federal government has muted its own antismoking campaign. Earlier in the year Agriculture Secretary John Block suggested that a federal antismoking campaign made little sense. Recently those planned antismoking ads featuring actress Brooke Shields (and directed at teen-agers) were pulled from the airwaves. Morever, like its predecessor, the Reagan administration has been unwilling to end the tobacco crop support program, even though the government demands warning labels on cigarette packages.

When will such irresponsibility end?

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