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Smoking Ad Exhibit Traces Message Shift From Pro to Con

Rise and fall of cigarette advertising may foretell future of vaping

Photo: Getty Images

A Yale University library exhibition of pro- and anti-tobacco advertising that chronicles the 180-degree shift in efforts to shape U.S. public opinion on the benefits and risks of cigarette smoking may foretell the future for electronic cigarettes.

The earliest piece in the "Selling Smoke" exhibit is a 1919 magazine ad for Chesterfield, touting the uniquely satisfying blend of Turkish and American tobaccos. The most recent appears to be a 1997 American Lung Association "Thanks for Not Smoking" sticker. Through the intervening years, messages span the continuum of extolling the scientifically proven benefits of smoking to literally laying Joe Camel in a coffin following his smoking-related death. 

Photo: William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection
(Ms Coll 20), Medical Historical Library, Harvey Cushing/John
Hay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University

Images of all 997 pieces drawn from the William Van Duyn Tobacco Advertisement Collection can be viewed on the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library website.

The exhibit comes in the same year as the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health. As of 2014, rates of smoking among U.S. adults have fallen to a record low of 27.3 percent, television and radio advertising of most tobacco products has been banned for decades, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has received authority to regulate tobacco in much the same way as it does medications.

Chesterfields have even disappeared from the American market, but companies large and small have pushed into smokeless and electronic cigarette niches. The latest figures compiled by federal health officials show gains in sales for those products, and e-cig ads have become something of a staple on cable networks programmed primarily for the 18-34 demo.

Regulators have taken notice. Bills to ban both the sale and advertising of e-cigs to minors have been introduced in Congress, and some states and cities have already imposed limits. Companies are once again claiming health benefits for their products, but the strongest argument to be made at this point is that the potential risks of inhaling nicotine-infused vapor—or "vaping"—are unknown.

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