It is little appreciated that for most of the past half-century, New York City was the global headquarters of the tobacco industry and its allies: three of the six major cigarette companies; nearly all of their advertising agencies and public relations firms; the three major commercial television networks and the two most influential US newspapers; the top investment firms and banks; the industry-created Council for Tobacco Research; tobacco industry trade journal publishers; and numerous internationally-renowned sports and arts organizations that were beneficiaries of tobacco industry funding.
Led by Philip Morris, maker of the world’s best-selling cigarette, Marlboro, and by Loews, maker of the leading menthol brand, Newport (the top-selling brand among African-Americans), the tobacco industry wielded enormous influence among opinion leaders and the general public alike until well into the 2000s by means of extensive advertising in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, popular magazines, and ethnic newspapers such as The Amsterdam News; in theater, opera, and dance programs; in scorecards and on billboards in Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium (and earlier ballparks such as Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds); on the largest billboards in Times Square and throughout the city; on the city’s buses, subways, and taxis; and in countless bodegas, newsstands, candy stores, bars, supermarkets, and pharmacies.
In the early 1980s, pioneering, outspoken anti-smoking strategists and organizations emerged in New York City. Along with efforts by a relative handful of elected officials, these groups pushed for the passage of bans on smoking in schools, clinics, restaurants, other workplaces, and on public transportation and in bus shelters. However, the tobacco industry fought back by enlisting its allies, including the American Civil Liberties Union, various New York City-based arts organizations, and other groups to which it provided funding, to lobby against the bills or to water them down.
Regardless, this early grassroots activism and the hard-won laws of the 1990s laid the groundwork for the comprehensive and visionary anti-smoking initiatives of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Tom Frieden, launched in 2002. During Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure, New York City witnessed the implementation of several far-reaching smoking bans and a considerable hike in cigarette taxes. Although these policies were unpopular among many of those who smoked, Mayor Bloomberg earned an international reputation as a leader in anti-smoking action and health reform. Unfortunately, since he left the mayoralty at the end of his third term in December 2013, smoking rates in New York City have risen.