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Aussie aims to snuff out cigarette ads

AUSTRALIANS have come to expect almost anything from Dick Smith. He gets his kicks out of flying a helicopter around the world solo. He pokes fun at daredevils by jumping a double-decker bus over 16 motorcycles. He pours about $1 million each year into various charities. And, on warm days, Mr. Smith can be found running his Australian Geographic Society from an outdoor ``bush office.''

This ardent Boy Scout-turned-self-made millionaire also excels in the roles of prankster, adventurer, filmmaker, conservationist, philanthropist, publisher, and 1987 Australian of the Year.

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But Smith cringes at a moniker now being bandied about: ``anti-capitalist do-gooder.''

The label springs from his two-year campaign to rid the Australian press of cigarette ads, which, he says, ``entice our children [Smith has two teen-age daughters] to become addicted to a [nicotine] product the United States surgeon general has said is more addictive than heroin.''

``I'm not an antismoking campaigner,'' Smith insists, holding up a ``Please feel free to smoke'' sign on his desk. ``If adults understand and are prepared to pay for the risk, that's up to them. But in Australia and just about everywhere else in the world, people who start smoking do so as teenagers, usually under the age of 16.''

Smoking has declined among Australian adults (from about 60 percent in 1945 to 31 percent in 1986). But smoking is up sharply among female teen-agers. A study published last year by the Medical Journal of Australia indicated that more than 40 percent of 15-year-old girls were regular smokers. (This is despite laws against selling cigarettes to children under 16.)

To counter the trend, Smith has spent $200,000 to $300,000 (Australian; US$160,000 to $240,000) so far on newspaper and magazine ads lambasting cigarette companies. For example, one ad ``congratulates'' cigarette-maker Philip Morris on capturing 27 percent of the under-16 Australian market with its new Peter Jackson brand.

Smith has also met with print editors to challenge their policies of accepting ads from cigarette companies, which are major revenue producers. ``They've been bought off,'' he says. ``When you say every journalist in this country gets a portion of their salary from advertising dollars from promoting this addictive drug to our kids, they feel uneasy about that. But it's very hard to criticize a product they're making their living out of. The minute they run a story about [cigarette] advertising, they start getting complaints from their own advertising sales reps. ... The cigarette companies don't even have to say we'll withdraw advertising.''

Smith's most recent broadside has taken the form of a scathing antismoking magazine and contest. The magazine, called Truth an Ad, is designed for teen-agers. It includes sections such as ``The Billion Dollar Con,'' ``Smoking & Sex,'' and statements such as ``Last year, cigarette companies lost over 17,000 of their very best customers. Cigarettes killed them.'' Copies of the magazine were first sent to Australian school principals and politicians. Ultimately, 100,000 copies were distributed, mostly in schools.

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Also included in the Truth an Ad magazines are the rules for a contest to lampoon cigarette ads. It's based on a similar program in Britain which give children an opportunity to redesign ads.

``I haven't said, `Don't smoke.' I've said, `That's your decision. You're the boss of yourself. But you're being conned by somebody who's trying to make money out of you,''' says Smith. ``This Truth an Ad campaign allows the kids to rebel. It allows them to get hold of an ad and change it ... and to show these smart, dishonest businessmen that our kids are not as stupid as businessmen would like to make them out to be.''

Honesty is an absolute fundamental, in Smith's book. He argues that tobacco and alcohol ads create a false impression when they portray young, sophisticated, successful people using the product.

``The most successful people, I find, generally don't drink. Now if you're constantly seeing ads showing the opposite, that's dishonest.''

Smith is offering $38,000 in cash and prizes, which will be awarded in October, for the best Truth an Ad entry. The response? He points to thousands of entries piled knee-deep in an outer office.

None of this has gone over too well with the tobacco manufacturers.

``We have no argument with Dick Smith in regard to juveniles smoking. Smoking is an adult pursuit,'' says Blair Hunt of the Tobacco Institute of Australia. But Smith's attacks on advertising are misguided, he says.

``Advertising plays an insignificantly small role in the initiation of smoking by young people,'' says Mr. Hunt, citing a 10-nation study in 1987 compiled by a professor at Baruch College in New York. It concludes that parents' smoking, peer pressure, and other socioeconomic factors are far more relevant than advertising. Last month, the Tobacco Institute sent the study to school principals Australia-wide to balance Smith's magazine.

Hunt adds, ``It's totally wrong to legislate against advertising whilst cigarettes are a legal product. If you want to make cigarettes illegal, we have no argument.''

Smith responds: ``With 30 percent of the population addicted to the product, its impossible to legislate against it. It must be a gradual campaign.'' He seems to relish clashes with the news media or tobacco industry. But Smith hasn't enjoyed being perceived by his ``capitalist mates'' as anti-business.

``The most difficult thing is being put down by my peers as being a do-gooder or a wowser. They say, `What's happened to Dick Smith? He's supposed to be a good tough businessman.' Now I'm suspect because I would criticize advertising - a fundamental of the free-enterprise system. I think they're like me two or three years ago when I couldn't really see the difference between this product and other products.''

Whatever influence Smith may have on attitudes toward tobacco advertising can probably be attributed to his popularity and ongoing success.

With a A$600 (US$480) investment shortly after high school, Smith made his fortune by building a chain of electronics stores. The outlets still sport his name and boyish mug, but he sold out and pocketed an estimated A$20 (US$16) million in 1980.

In his spare time, Smith organized charity flights over Antarctica, devised plans to tow an iceberg to Sydney Harbour and ride a motor-powered pogo-stick across the Harbour Bridge.

The anti-tobacco advertising campaign grew out of his support (some A$10 [US$8] million worth) of Life Education Centers which teach schoolchildren about the health effects of smoking, alcohol, and narcotics.

Satisfaction counts for a lot in Smith's ledger. He predicts the anti-cigarette advertising campaign will be one of his best investments. ``I really believe that in two or three years' time, there will be a substantial reduction in the number of kids smoking. And, being a rather selfish fellow, I'm going to be able to think I'm one of the reasons for that reduction. Now that's going to be worth a fortune to me.''

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