This six-page article in the Medicine section discusses the widespread public fear generated by reports of cancer-causing chemicals in food and household products. Although the article does not question cigarette smoking as a significant cause of cancer, the inclusion of a table, “Cancer and the Environment: Ten Top Suspects,” in which “tobacco smoke” is number 9, surely mollified concerns of the magazine’s four major cigarette company advertisers. The “suspects” are listed in…alphabetical order!
Nor does the article offer a sanguine outlook:
“[T]he real task of lowering the incidence of cancers induced by the American lifestyle is essentially up to ordinary citizens,” the article concluded, “–and here the outlook for constructive action does not seem so bright. For despite all the warnings, the majority of Americans continue to indulge themselves in the potentially harmful pleasures that their opulent society provides, and so far they are apparently content to take the perils along with the pleasures. ‘Right now we’ve decided that this is the way we want to live and die,’ says Dr. David Baltimore [1938- ], who won the 1975 Nobel Prize for basic cancer research. ‘And that’s the real challenge in American health today.’”
Another key quote from the article: “The outcry that follows each successive new disclosure of a possible carcinogen on the dinner table or in the workshop tends to obscure the fact that 60 million Americans continue to expose themselves to tobacco–the least disputed carcinogen of all.”
In addition to the back cover advertisement for Viceroy cigarettes (Brown & Williamson Tobacco Co.), the issue contains six other cigarette advertisements: Merit (Philip Morris, 2 pages), Winston (RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co.), Lucky Strike (American, 1/3 page), Iceberg 100s (American Tobacco Co., 1/3 page), Doral (RJ Reynolds), and Salem (RJ Reynolds).
TIME Magazine and the Cure for Cancer: Hope vs. Hype Indeed
In 1945, TIME Magazine first used a red X on its cover to mark the demise of an arch-enemy. The striking image has since appeared five times–after the killings of a dictator in 2003 and two perpetrators of mass terrorism in 2006 and 2011, and in 2020 to illustrate the end of “the worst year ever.” But the May 18, 1998 TIME cover heralding the elimination of cancer was woefully premature. The rush-to-print cover story was sparked by a front-page article by Gina Kolata in The New York Times on May 3, 1998, headlined “HOPE IN THE LAB: A Special Report.; A Cautious Awe Greets Drugs That Eradicate Tumors in Mice.” Kolata’s article, which reported the discovery that two drugs, endostatin and angiostatin, developed by cancer researcher Dr. Judah Folkman [1933-2008], stopped cancers from growing by stopping angiogenesis, or the formation of new blood vessels. “Within a year, if all goes well,” the article began, “the first cancer patient will be injected with two new drugs that can eradicate any type of cancer, with no obvious side effects and no drug resistance — in mice.”
Although there is no mention of cigarette smoking in the TIME article, at the bottom of a two-page Checklist of Cancer Treatments a paragraph labeled, “The Best Prevention,” notes that “changes in life-style–chief among them quitting smoking–can remove risk factors that cause cancer in the first place…”
A second three-page article, “Molecular Revolution,” by Claudia Willis, lists “cigarette smoke, sunlight, environmental toxins…and aging” as causes of alterations in genes that can result in cancer. The article reflected the view of cancer researchers that “a new era is dawning in the treatment of the U.S.’s No. 2 killer.” Dr. Bert Vogelstein [1949- ], a world-renowned investigator of cancer genes at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said, “Three decades ago, the Federal Government’s ‘War on Cancer’ underwrote basic discoveries about the ways broken-down genes led to malignancies. Now that work is beginning to pay off…As researchers, we feel a tremendous amount of hope, probably for the first time in the history of cancer research.”
From its first year of publication in 1923 and throughout the 20th century, TIME Magazine was a major recipient of cigarette advertising revenue. There were no cigarette advertisements in its May 11, 1998 issue on the hoped-for cure for cancer.
Newspapers, too, aggressively sought lucrative cigarette ad revenue
In 1975, more than a decade after the publication of the US Surgeon General’s Report on the devastating health consequences of cigarette smoking, George Gitlitz, MD, a vascular surgeon and past president of the Broome County, New York Medical Society, wrote the first of over a dozen letters to the editor and the publisher of The New York Times challenging them to discuss on the newspaper’s editorial page their reasons for continuing to accept cigarette advertising and to acknowledge the irony of repeated editorial accusations of financial self-interest by doctors while profiting from the promotion of the major preventable cause of disease and avoidable medical costs. Dr. Gitlitz’ correspondence with The Times was published in December 1983 in the New York State Journal of Medicine in the first theme issue by a medical journal on the world cigarette pandemic: https://csts.ua.edu/collections/medical-journal-editorship/.
But The Times and other major daily newspapers were far from passive recipients of tobacco industry largesse. They aggressively courted cigarette advertisers in tobacco industry trade publications and boasted of helping to promote cigarette sales. In the Center’s 2018 exhibition “Big Tobacco in the Big Apple: How New York City became the heart of the tobacco industry…and anti-smoking activism,” The Times’ ties to cigarette companies is explored in greater depth: https://csts.ua.edu/btba/mass-media/nyt/