The Cigarette, The Batman, and The Youth: a History of Tobacco Regulations and Comic Books – Part I: Introduction

Summary

This blog series examines the history of comic books and tobacco regulations. Tobacco advertisements in comic books have been self-regulated by both U.S. tobacco companies and U.S. comic book publishers. These regulations, however, have not prevented tobacco advertisements from appearing in comic books. Internal tobacco documents show that U.S. tobacco companies used relatively unregulated foreign markets to advertise in comic books. Additionally, tobacco companies have used purported anti-tobacco campaigns in comic books to provide pro-tobacco messages to young readers. These tactics demonstrate that comic book publishers must be vigilant when dealing with tobacco companies and that tobacco companies’ self-regulation is unreliable.

Moreover, there has been very little regulation of smoking depictions in comic books. Most comic book publishers have not implemented effective or lasting smoking depiction regulations. Also, many readers view such censorship as too paternalistic. Publishers and readers fail to appreciate the dangers that smoking depictions pose to young, impressionable readers. Studies have shown the power of smoking depictions to influence the youth to smoke. The hazards to young comic book readers that start smoking include, among others, addiction and death. Comic book publishers are best positioned to address this salient public health concern.


Introduction

In 1963, a cancer specialist commented on the correlation between the increase in smoking and lung cancer, “There’s been an increase in comic book reading also—but does this mean comic books cause cancer?”[1] This flippant remark actually embodies a relevant concern that comic books may promote smoking, and, in turn, cause cancer. At the time of the quote, Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry had not released the famous Surgeon General’s Report detailing the dangers of smoking, [2] but now it is unquestionable that smoking is the primary cause of lung cancer.[3] It is also a fact that many comic book characters have been and are currently depicted as smokers.[4] Superheroes and superheroines are known for their super powers, but one power that they may not be well known for is the power to influence young readers to smoke.

In 1981, Superman II was released in theaters and received mostly positive reviews from critics.[5] The film portrayed Superman’s love interest, Lois Lane, as a smoker.[6] Product placements throughout the film featured Marlboro cigarettes.[7] The depiction of Lane as a smoker and the presence of Marlboro advertisements concerned Dr. Paul Magnus, Medical Associate of the National Heart Foundation of Australia, who asked, “How many thousands of girls, primed for smoking, will the movie have given that last nudge into a cigarette habit or pushed a bit closer?”[8] One newspaper pointed out that the movie specifically referenced Marlboro cigarettes at least twenty-two times, and that “Lois Lane smokes them like a stove with a damaged damper.”[9] Moreover, Damon and Grace Reinbold, a couple that ran a smoking cessation program, filed a “deceptive trade” practice complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Philip Morris and Warner Communications, alleging that the movie inspired children to smoke.[10] Damon Reinbold, remarked, “Who would ever suspect that Superman or Lois Lane would do anything wrong?”[11]

Dr. Magnus’ and the Reinbold’s concerns were vindicated through research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The CDC reported that youth exposed to onscreen smoking in movies are more likely to start smoking, which is especially true where youth are “heavily exposed” to onscreen smoking.[12] The NCI has determined that there is “a causal relationship between exposure to movie smoking depictions and youth smoking initiation.”[13] As a result of these and similar findings, three major motion picture companies began to enforce written policies to reduce smoking in their films beginning in 2004.[14] From 2005 to 2010, the number of tobacco incidents per youth-rated movie decreased 95.8%.[15]

If smoking depictions in comic book inspired movies influences youth to smoke, then it surely follows that smoking depictions in comic books themselves also influence youth to smoke. It makes sense that comic book publishers, cigarette manufacturers, public health officials or policy makers would have taken steps to address the issue of cigarette advertisements and smoking depictions in comic books. This blog series explores whether and to what extent tobacco advertisement and smoking depiction regulations exist for comic books. I examine how comic books, comic book publishers, tobacco companies, and other interested parties have addressed these issues, and I explore potential ways to regulate cigarette advertisements and smoking depictions in comic books.

The litigation history regarding the content of comic books is addressed in this blog series, albeit not extensively. I primarily focus on landmark First Amendment cases that provide a framework to discuss potential smoking depiction regulations. This blog series also does not address comic strips, such as those found in newspapers, nor does this series address television cartoons or movie adaptations of comic books. This blog series is specifically concerned with comic books as print media. I do not claim that my research has uncovered most, much less all, anti-tobacco messages or tobacco advertisements in comic books where there are hundreds of thousands to review. My aim is to provide an adequate sample of comic books with anti-tobacco messages, smoking depictions, and tobacco advertisements to provide a proper context for the ensuing discussion. Also, I do not look at comic books from all current or past publishers. Most of this series concerns the two largest comic book publishers: DC Comics and Marvel Comics. As of 2010, DC Comics controlled 32.22% of the market, and Marvel controlled 45.63% of the market.[16] I focus most of my research on these two publishers because they collectively control 77.85% of the market, and, accordingly, have the largest influence on comic book readers.

The second installment of this blog series will explore efforts by the comic book industry and tobacco industry to self-regulate tobacco advertisements in comic books. I will examine the Comics Code, the Cigarette Advertising Code, and the extent that comic book publishers and tobacco companies followed these codes. The third installment will explore whether smoking depictions in comic books have been regulated. I will discuss T. Casey Brennan’s campaign in the 1980s to keep smoking out of comic books and efforts by Marvel Comics and DC Comics to address smoking in their publications. The fourth installment will look at a small selection of cases addressing statutes that regulated violence and sex in magazines and video games. I will use these cases as a framework to analyze whether a statute could be crafted that regulates the sale of comic books with smoking depictions to minors. The final installment will look at the future of regulating cigarette advertisements and smoking depictions in comic books. I will examine what types of regulations would be plausible and what advocacy for smoking depiction regulations could look like.


Note on Citation

All citations to internal tobacco company documents are cited by Bates Numbers, which refer to the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu. Citations to comic books follow the following format: [writer] & [editor], [issue title], [volume number]:[issue number] [comic series title] [page number] ([publisher] [date of publication]).

[1] Henry W. Pierce, Lung Cancer, Smoking Has the Doctors at Odds: Opinions of Specialists Leave Public In Middle of Vast Wall of Uncertainty, Pittsburgh Press (Post-Gazette), April 12, 1963, Bates No. 1003543210.

[2] U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service (n.d. [1964]).

[3] Lung cancer is also the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, The Health Consequences of Smoking-50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General (2014) at 151.

[4] Notable comic book characters that smoke or have smoked include Marvel Comics’ Wolverine, Harvey Comics’ Dick Tracy, DC Comics’ John Constantine, and Dark Horse’s Hellboy.

[5] Roger Ebert gave the film four stars. Roger Ebert, Superman II Review, RogerEbert.com, (Jan. 1, 1981), available at http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/superman-ii-1981.

[6] Superman II (Warner Bros. Pictures 1981).

[7] Id. Philip Morris paid Superman II producers $43,000.00 to feature a giant Marlboro logo during a fight scene. Superman II took $43,000.00 to push Marlboros at kids. Why would Men in Black II do the same thing for free? Smoke Free Movies (April 17, 2014, 12:43 AM), http://smokefreemovies.ucsf.edu/pdf/sfm10_variety.pdf.

[8] Paul Magnus, Superman and the Marlboro woman: The lungs of Lois Lane, 85:7 N.Y. St. J. Med., 342, 343 (1985).

[9] Marlboro again riding high on TV screens, Florence-Times Daily, Feb. 27, 1983, at B 32.

[10] Mike Wowk, Suit rips Superman cigaret ‘ads,The Detroit News, July 19, 1983 at 15-A.

[11] Id.

[12] Stanton A. Glantz et al., Smoking in Top-Grossing Movies-United States-1991-2009, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (Aug. 20, 2010), available at http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5932a2.htm?s_cid=mm5932a2_w.

[13] Tobacco Control Monograph No. 19: The Role of the Media in Promoting and Reducing Tobacco Use, National Cancer Institute 19 (Ronald M. Davis, et al. eds., June 2008), available at http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/brp/tcrb/monographs/19/m19_complete_accessible.pdf.

[14] The motion picture companies were Disney, Time Warner, and Universal. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General (2012) at 570.

[15] Id. It has also been recommended that movies with smoking depictions receive ‘R’ ratings to further reduce youth smoking. Id. at 571.

[16] Nickie D. Phillips & Staci Strobl, Comic Book Crime: Truth, Justice, and The American Way, 14 (2013).


I would like to thank Professor Marc Linder at the University of Iowa College of Law for providing insight and encouragement during the research and writing process. I would also like to thank Reddit users “jonathanmatthewwood” and “ProjectInsight” for suggesting comic book titles that addressed tobacco use. Finally, a big thank you to Daydreams Comics’ staff in Iowa City, Iowa, for providing much needed help digging through boxes and boxes of comic books.

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