Tobacco Under Fire: Advertising a Harmful Product

Significant Facts Raised

Tobacco use and its harmful effects has been a subject of continuous debate for over half a decade now. The case presents facts about harmful effects of tobacco use and its current and future trends in advertising and promotion campaigns.

The case has highlighted facts about the effects of tobacco use on the health of the user. According to the case study tobacco use has been proven to be the main cause of major diseases such as lung cancer, both among smokers and nonsmokers, heart disease and disease of circulatory system. These diseases have contributed to annual deaths estimated at 4.2 million.

Cigarette advertising, according to this case began towards the end of 1920’s with one manufacturer (Lucky Strike), claiming that its product is less harmful compared to those of others and associating it with popular athletes of that time. Later on others like Philip Morris promoted its product by claiming that it was good for both the nose and the throat. Tobacco advertising went on and it was not until early 1950s that the consumers of the product began suspecting that cigarettes could be containing harmful products. However, the same manufacturers were quick to dispel any suspicion by claiming that they could provide health protection and gave satisfactory tastes to those smokers who were keen about their health. Regulations in the cigarette industry only began in 1955. A series of measures were then put in place to regulate the advertising of adverting. After consumers of cigarettes and the government began to gain a better insight about the harmful effects of tobacco use, trade regulations were put in place that made the labeling of health warnings on all cigarette packets compulsory.

The other fact presented in the case is that, although cigarettes are harmful, its economic value cannot be ignored. Its annual turnover is high and it is one of the major economic activities in over twenty states. It is a major source of government revenues through the excise duty tax. This, therefore, emphasizes the fact that cigarettes use and its advertising cannot be banned completely without severe consequences to the economy. For this reason, regulating the industry tends to send a message that although cigarettes are harmful, their revenue from taxes is good for the economy.

Another fact presented by the case is that even if the government has tried to ban cigarette advertisements completely, on both radio and television, and required manufacturers to always display health warnings on cigarette packets, the manufacturers have always found ways of ensuring that their adverts reach the target audiences. This includes the use of movie stars and moving their campaigns to where smokers are readily found.

Finally, the case has highlighted the fact that through cigarettes’ advertising, children are exposed to smoking at very tender ages therefore, causing them to start smoking at their early ages.

Major Ethical Issue

The most important ethical issue presented in this case is cigarettes’ advertising, and whether it should be allowed or banned. Those of the opinion that such adverts should be allowed to continue being aired argue that since cigarettes are legal goods, they should be marketed just like any other consumer products without any restrictions. They also justify their claim with the fact that cigarette industry is a very important sector to the economy as it generates a lot of revenue. Even those who do not smoke believe that cigarettes’ advertising is a commercial speech protected by legislation, therefore, should not be interfered with by the government.

On the other hand, those opposed to free cigarette advertisement also have many reasons to justify their position. One of the reasons is that most cigarettes’ adverts are deceptive and misleading and thus do not give true facts that would lead to informed decision by the consumers. For example, the case highlighted by the Federal Trade Commission (1994) regarding the advert entitled ‘Of Cigarettes and Science’ that was done by Reynolds, distorted important details relating to the study on relationship between cigarettes risk factors and hearth diseases (p. 120). Another reason raised by the opponents is the issue of cigarette advertisement and children. The case presents the proposition that cigarette advertisements have exposed children to smoking.

Resolutions/ Approaches to Ethical Issue

One resolution is that, since cigarette smoking endangers the health of the consumers and its advertisements exposes children to smoking and often leads to misinformed decision by those with intentions of smoking, government should exercise its rights and completely ban cigarettes’ advertisements. This would force companies to channel their advertisement costs to other areas such as image campaigns.

The other resolution is to allow cigarette advertisements to run freely. Since tobacco is like any other commercial product and has immense benefits to the economy in terms of revenue generations, it should not be restricted. This resolution on the other hand will lead to the companies spending significant part of their revenues on advertising campaigns and brand building. It may also witness a significant rise in the number of smokers and consequently, a lot of expenditure in the treatment of smoking-related ailments such as cancer and respiratory infections.

But effective resolution to the ethical issue of whether to ban cigarette advertising completely or allow it to run freely lies in the integration of the two, that is allowing cigarettes’ advertisement to run but imposing strict restrictions on the same. Such restrictions include accompanying every cigarette advert with a prescribed health warning, controlling the amount of companies’ budgetary allocations to advertising campaigns among other regulations that should be put in place. Chapman (1986) explains that in order to restrict children from accessing cigarette adverts, both on television and radio, they should be aired only late in the night when they are asleep (p. 130). Billboards with cigarette adverts should also be placed away from schools (Chapman, 1986, p. 130).

Philosophical Approach to Ethical Issue

The main philosophical approach that best captures the chosen approach to the above ethical issue is Utilitarianism.

According to Beauchamp, Bowie and Arnold (2008), utilitarianism is a philosophy whereby an act is classified as being right if only is useful in bringing about a positive end (p. 342). According to this philosophy therefore, the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the outcome of deciding to pursue one action over the other alternative(s). The interests of all, therefore, have to be considered. The best option on how to handle the above ethical issue, is to allow cigarettes’ advertisements to run but with restrictions. This will ensure that the interests of the manufacturers/ marketers, government and the consumers are safeguarded. Consumers would be able to make right decisions based on the information displayed by cigarettes’ adverts, manufacturers/marketers would also have their interests in place by being given the opportunity to promote their sales and finally, the government would be able generate its targeted revenue from taxation of tobacco products.

Another philosophical approach captured in the above identified options of dealing with ethical issue is Egoism. Egoism refers to putting the self- interest above those of others. The first option involves the government exercising its rights and imposing a total ban on cigarettes’ advertisement in order to safeguard its interests alone without due consideration of the interests of manufacturers and marketers of the product.


Beauchamp, T. L., Bowie, N. E., & Arnold, D. G. (2008). Ethical theory and business. Michigan, IN: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Chapman, S. (1986). Great expectorations: Advertising and the tobacco industry. London: Comedia.

Federal Trade Commission. (1994).Cigarette advertising and promotion in the United States. Tobacco Control, 3, 286-289.

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