Why The Times Plans to Ban Tobacco Ads


What, turn away advertising? For a newspaper, which depends heavily on advertising revenue, that’s close to heresy. But The Times is about to do that with tobacco advertisements.

Times executives first considered banning tobacco ads last December, shortly after the settlement between the tobacco companies and the state attorneys general. The decision wasn’t easy, because there were compelling arguments on both sides.

Those who wanted to yank the ads cited the obvious: Smoking causes illness and death. Does The Times, as an institution, want to contribute to that? Others argued that smoking is legal--indeed, government supports the industry through subsidies. And people, knowing the consequences, smoke of their own free will. Can we restrict an advertiser’s right to promote a legal product because we may not like it? Few cigarette ads were running then, and Mark Willes, who was publisher at the time, decided not to ban them.


But cigarette advertising increased in the spring, partly a result of the settlement’s restrictions on the ways in which tobacco companies could advertise. Cigarette advertising, banned from radio and television in 1971, now was banned from billboards and sports stadiums as well, and “image” advertising that appealed to children was restricted. Tobacco companies increasingly turned to newspapers.

Readers around the country reacted angrily. Several newspapers banned the ads, including the San Jose Mercury News, the Seattle Times and the New York Times. A number of our readers said our credibility was on the line.

That’s understandable. The Times has carried countless stories documenting that smoking causes cancer, heart disease and other health problems, that second-hand smoke is dangerous and that smoking is a leading cause of death among women. Then we ran a full-page, full-color ad featuring an attractive young woman smoking, with the words, “Isn’t it about time you started thinking about Number One?”

Readers nailed us. “What kind of hypocrites are you?” one reader e-mailed. “Your articles talk about the dangers of smoking, yet you accept an ad that encourages the habit. And on the day you promote your Health section. Your newspaper has lost my respect.”

In editorials, we called smoking “an invidious and deadly addiction” and supported efforts to stop tobacco companies from enticing young people to smoke. We said: “That cigarettes should be kept away from children is one of the few principles on which everyone in the debate over cigarettes agrees.” And then we ran a colorful 4-column by 8-inch ad offering discounted cigarettes by mail order--a seemingly open invitation to youths to smoke illegally. Two school principals were so upset they canceled the newspapers distributed to their schools through our Times in Education program. Several readers said they saw a contradiction between helping children with our Reading by 9 program and printing this ad.

One reader voiced a common complaint: “We have lost so many friends, neighbors and loved ones from diseases caused by cigarettes that it got us nauseous seeing that ad and knowing that you are pimping for the tobacco companies to addict children. We would never subscribe to your paper as long as you promote death and illness.”


With the advertisements--and complaints--increasing, new publisher Kathryn Downing again raised the issue with Times executives. While everyone agreed that we cannot pull ads every time readers complain (which they regularly do about underwear ads, for instance), objections to the cigarette ads reinforced arguments of Times executives against the ads in December. Downing decided: As of Oct. 1, The Times will no longer accept tobacco advertising.

Commitments for tobacco ads that were to have run through December will be canceled. The ban also will apply to all Times Community News publications distributed with The Times. Tobacco ads in Parade magazine, distributed in The Times on Sunday, and manufacturer coupon ads inserted in the Sunday paper may appear until the end of the year, because they are not under Times control. However, after Jan. 1, The Times will not carry these inserts if they contain tobacco advertising.

“We have a special role as the voice of the community that requires us to exercise judgment with what we put in the paper,” Downing said in explaining the ban. “And there is just no disputing the connection between smoking and illness and death.”

The ban does not affect other newspapers owned by Times Mirror, The Times’ parent company. Willes, who heads Times Mirror, leaves such decisions to individual publishers.

In addition to tobacco, The Times also rejects advertising for so-called “adult” stores, handguns and other non-hunting guns, pornography, gambling and psychics. The tobacco ban is being discussed around The Times with the same passion the public exhibits--and for the same reasons. Some Times colleagues think we should extend the rights of free expression to advertisers and reject ads, and the revenue, only in the rarest of cases. Others are pleased.

As the parent of a son for whom, at age 15, easy access to cigarettes and the image of Joe Camel proved stronger influences than his emphysema-stricken grandfather tethered to an oxygen tank, I confess I am in the latter group.


To reach the readers’ representative, call (877) 554-4000; fax: (213) 237-3535; e-mail:; mail: Times Mirror Square, L.A. 90053.