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

The comic book and tobacco industries share a similar origin story for self-regulating comic book advertisements. Both industries swore-off tobacco advertisements in comic books to alleviate pressure from groups that worried about the effects of tobacco advertisements on children. Each industry developed its own code that addressed tobacco advertisements in comic books. In this post we will explore the history of the Comics Code and the Cigarette Advertisement Code. The next post in this series will examine violations of the codes.

The Comics Code

Historically, comic books have been under the close-scrutiny of parents, community groups, and legislators. National discourse in the 1940s was concerned with the influence of comic books on young readers due to the rising popularity of crime and horror comics and the perceived rise in juvenile delinquency.[1] Church groups, women’s clubs, parent-teacher associations, and others joined “decency campaigns” that implored local businesses to stop selling comic books that were deemed objectionable.[2] Comic books were even subjected to book burnings.[3] Many states also passed laws regulating the sale and distribution of comic books, which were challenged on First Amendment grounds.[4] The pressure on publishers to regulate comic book content resulted in two attempts by publishers to self-regulate the comic book industry.

In 1948, comic book publishers first attempted to self-regulate the comic book industry. [5] The Association of Comic Magazine Publishers (ACMP) was formed in response to public outcry against crime, sex, and horror comics.[6] This attempt ultimately failed where only twelve of the thirty-four major publishers joined the ACMP.[7] Comic book publishers had multiple reasons not to join or to withdraw from the ACMP. First, the cost of having comic books reviewed by the ACMP was particularly high for some publishers.[8] Second, some publishers did not believe their comic books were facing public scrutiny, and did not want to be affiliated with morally repugnant comic books.[9] Finally, some publishers simply did not want to adhere to the code.[10] The ACMP Code became defunct by 1950.[11]

Although the ACMP Code faded away, the issue of comic books’ influence on youth was still salient in the 1950s. In 1954, the New Orleans Council of Parent-Teachers Associations passed a resolution that commended the city council’s proposed ordinance that banned sex and horror comic books.[12] In the same year, the U.S. Senate held hearings on juvenile delinquency and comic books, which is discussed in detail below.[13] Clifford N. Jenkins, President of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, proclaimed that a national boycott of comic books in 1956 forced publishers to “clean up” their comic books.[14] A 1955 Harvard Law Review note addressed the issue of regulating comic book content in response to the claim that the rise in juvenile delinquency was related to the youth reading crime, horror, and sex comics.[15] The note suggested that industry self-regulation, among other forms, would be a plausible means to address the issue, and the note discussed a strict code recently adopted by the comic book industry in 1954.[16]

The 1954 code became known as the Comics Code Authority, which was overseen by “comic czar” Charles F. Murphy, a former New York City Magistrate.[17] Twenty-eight of thirty-one major comic book publishers subscribed to the Comics Code standards, which aimed to tone down the sex, violence, and horror represented in comic books.[18] Failure to abide by the Comics Code meant that a publisher would be expelled from the group and could not affix the Comics Code Authority seal to its publications.[19] Additionally, the code regulated advertising, which included banning all tobacco and liquor advertisements.[20] The Comics Code of 1954 did not, however, regulate the depiction of tobacco use by comic book characters.

Comics Code Authority

Senate Hearings that Prompted the Second Comics Code

The 1954 Senate hearings on juvenile delinquency prompted the comic industry to self-regulate the content of comic books.[21] The hearings focused on the impact of depictions of sex, violence and horror on juvenile delinquency. William M. Gaines, Publisher for Entertaining Comics Group, testified at the Senate hearing. He was steadfast against the idea that comics could influence young readers

What are we afraid of? Are we afraid of our own children? Do we forget that they are citizens, too, and entitled to select what to read or do? We think our children are so evil, simple minded, that it takes a story of murder to set them to murder, a story of robbery to set them to robbery? Jimmy Walker once remarked that he never knew a girl to be ruined by a book. Nobody has ever been ruined by a comic. As has already been pointed out by previous testimony, a little, healthy, normal child has never been made worse for reading comic magazines.[22]

The connection between smoking depictions and smoking as juvenile delinquency was never thoroughly discussed, although it was mentioned or implied during the hearings. Senator Kefauvor asked Gaines about an advertisement in one of his publications where a fraternity party is depicted with cigarettes on the floor. He asked Gaines if he thought the advertisement was, “in good taste.” Gaines replied, “Yes, sir,” noting that the advertisement was for a lampoon magazine where, “We make fun of things.”[23]

Other testimony also suggested that comic books may influence youth smoking. Gunnar Dybwad, Executive Director of the Child Association of America, testified that he was not aware of any instance where a crime was linked to a child reading a comic book.[24] He did, however, testify that juvenile delinquents who read comics were “addicted to very heavy smoking.”[25] James A. Fitzpatrick, Chairman of the New York State Joint Legislative Committee to Study the Publication of Comics, testified that New York forbade the sale of tobacco to children “on the general ground that it affects their health and morals.”[26] As to the sale of comic books to children, “To me it is just as important to forbid the sale to children of anything which breaks down standards of morality, which stimulates sexual desire, and which contributes to juvenile delinquency.”[27] J. Jerome Kaplon, Chairman of New Jersey’s Union County Bar Association’s Juvenile Delinquency Committee, analogized a proposed statute regulating comic books to a statute that regulated cigarette sales, “A $5 fine just like we have today in our State, a fine for anyone who sells cigarettes to a child under the age of 16.”[28] Kaplon also cited a news article about juvenile delinquency where smoking teenagers started a fire that caused $2,250,000 dollars in damage.[29]

Curiously, there were no suggestions during the hearings that tobacco depictions should be regulated in comic books, even though the testimony above implied that there is a correlation between comic books, smoking, and delinquency. Other testimony emphasized the influence of comic books on children. In particular, Dr. Frederic Wertham, Psychiatrist and Director of the Lafargue Clinic, testified, “It is my opinion, without any reasonable doubt, and without any reservation, that comic books are an important contributing factor in many cases of juvenile delinquency.”[30] Taken to the logical conclusion, depictions of tobacco use in comic books should have been a concern for regulation where such depictions would influence children to become delinquent smokers.

Smoking Depictions Addressed in 1989 Comics Code

The Comics Code did not address the influence of tobacco depictions in comic books until 1989. The 1989 revisions addressed characters that smoked, stating,

The consumption of alcohol, narcotics, pharmaceuticals, and tobacco will not be depicted in a glamorous way. When the line between the normal, responsible consumption of legal substances and the abuse of these substances is crossed, the distinction will be made clear and the adverse consequences of such abuse will be noted… Substance abuse is defined as the use of illicit drugs and the self-destructive use of such products as tobacco (including chewing tobacco), alcohol, prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, etc.[31]

This proclamation is by no means a bold statement against smoking depictions in comic books. It is difficult to distinguish between “normal, responsible consumption” of cigarettes and the “self-destructive use of cigarettes” where any use of cigarettes has serious health consequences.[32] Although tobacco use should not be “glamorous,” the Comics Code of 1989 suggests that “normal” use is not “self-destructive.” The attempt to address smoking depictions is made, but the language is so qualified that it fails to provide any meaningful condemnation of smoking depictions in comic books.

The Comics Code Becomes Defunct

Despite its long tenure as the sole regulatory body for comic books, the Comics Code Authority ultimately lost its ability to regulate the industry when the final publishers withdrew from seeking Comics Code approval in 2011.[33] Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) now holds the rights to the Comics Code Seal of Approval, and the CBLDF uses the seal to promote and protect free speech in comic books.[34] The CBLDF is a non-profit organization created in 1990,[35] and is “dedicated to the protection of the First Amendment rights of the comics art form and its community of retailers, creators, publishers, librarians, and readers.”[36] An interesting speculation is how the CBLDF would address smoking depiction regulations, which are discussed later in this blog series in Parts IV and V.


The Cigarette Advertising Code

The tobacco industry also imposed a self-regulatory code ten years after the original Comics Code. The Cigarette Advertising Code (1964 Code) was adopted in 1964, and declared that cigarette advertising “shall not appear” in comic books.[37] The 1964 Code was limited to advertisements that were “in, or primarily directed to” the United States, its territories, its military installations, or Puerto Rico.[38] Any violation of this code could have resulted in a $100,000 fine payable to the code’s administrator.[39] It is unclear, however, whether any tobacco company has been fined for a violation of the 1964 Code.[40] The National Association of Broadcasters Code Authority (NABCA), which reviewed advertisements under the 1964 Code, was concerned that the ubiquitous nature of tobacco advertisements intended for adults normalized tobacco use.[41] The NABCA acknowledged that, “To the young, smoking indeed may seem to be an important step towards, and help in growth from adolescence to, maturity.”[42] The code was crafted in response to growing complaints that cigarette companies were advertising to youth and in response to potentially restrictive legislation.[43]

The concern about cigarette advertisements in comic books was warranted, with two notable examples. Willie the Penguin comic books were published in the early 1950s, which featured the same penguin used by the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co. to advertise its KOOL Cigarettes.[44] Although there are no cigarette advertisements in the comic book, there are characters that smoke.[45] One would be hard pressed not to draw a connection between the Willie the Penguin comic book and the cartoon-like advertisements for KOOL Cigarettes. [46] Additionally, prior to the 1964 Code, R.J. Reynolds ran advertisements for Camel Cigarettes and Winston Cigarettes in a newspaper comic book insert called American Armed Forces Features throughout the 1950s.[47]


Tobacco companies seemed to abide by the 1964 advertisement prohibition, although there was some internal debate about what constituted a comic book. This is exemplified by a Liggett & Meyers discussion about the newspaper insert American Armed Forces Features.

In 1964, an advertising memorandum to Liggett & Meyers discussed the use of tobacco advertisements in an issue of American Armed Forces Features.[48] The memorandum stated that, according to Liggett & Meyers’ attorneys, American Armed Forces Features may be a comic book under the 1964 Code, and the publication should be sent to the administrator for a final determination.[49] Liggett & Meyers’ Vice President, L.W. Bruff, stated in a letter that Lorillard’s attorneys determined that American Armed Forces Features is not a comic book under the 1964 Code.[50] Interestingly, a 1962 letter to Lorillard from an advertising agency asserted its reservation to run ads in American Armed Forces Features because of its nature as a comic.[51] Despite the contention that American Armed Forces Features was not a comic book, tobacco advertisements from any company are not found in American Armed Forces Features after the introduction of the 1964 Code.

Note on Citation

All citations to internal tobacco company documents are cited by Bates Numbers, which refer to the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library at 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] S. Comm. on the Judiciary, S. Interim Rep. on Comic Books and Juvenile Delinquency, S. Rep. No. 84-62, at 22-23 (1955-56).

[2] Amy Kiste Nyberg, Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code 23 (1998).

[3] Id. at 26.

[4] See Fern L. Kletter, First Amendment Protection Afforded to Comic Books, Comic Strips, and Cartoons, 118 A.L.R. 5th 213 (2004).

[5] S. Comm. on the Judiciary, supra note 1, at 22-23.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation 103 (2001).

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id. at 104.

[12] P-TA Maps Fight on Delinquency: Supports Move Against Horror Comic Books, The Times-Picayune, Sept. 23, 1954 at 4.

[13] S. Interim R., infra note 28.

[14] PTA: Don’t Smokewash Teen-Agers, N.Y. Herald Trib., May 23, 1963 at 22.

[15] Note, Regulation of Comic Books, 68 Harv. L. Rev. 489, (1955) (discussing possible ways to regulate comic book content through statutes that regulate content before or after publication; through informal government action such as advisory boards that determine whether a comic book is obscene; through private action that includes boycotts, and book burnings; and industry regulation where the comic book publishers would develop a set of standards that the general community would accept).

[16] Id. at 505-06.

[17] Dorothy Barclay, ‘New’ Comic Books to be Out in a Week: first approved issues put more clothing on heroines and tone down violence, New York Times, Dec. 29, 1954, at 8.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Nyberg, supra note 2, at 166-69.

[21] “Following the hearings of the subcommittee on the effects of crime and horror comic books and intensified community action throughout the country in protesting to objectionable comic books, the establishment of the Comics Magazine Association of America was announced. A code was adopted on October 26, 1954.” S. Comm. on the Judiciary, supra note 1, at 23-24.

[22] S. Comm. on the Judiciary, supra note 1, at 98.

[23] Id. at 105.

[24] Id. at 127.

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 209.

[27] Id.

[28] Id. at 283. This analogy is also drawn in the Interim Report of the Juvenile Delinquency Committee of the Union County Bar association, Exhibit No. 32, “To hasten this process our State Legislature is considering a law (assembly bill 401), based on the principle of our present statute that forbids the sale of cigarettes to a minor under 16,” at 292.

[29] S. Comm. on the Judiciary, supra note 1, at 281.

[30] Id. at 83.

[31] Nyberg, supra note 2, at 175-79.

[32] Nearly every organ of the body is impacted by smoking, and there is no risk-free exposure level to second-hand smoke. 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 870.

[33] Douglas Wolk, R.I.P.: The Comics Code Authority, Time Tech: Gaming Culture, (Jan. 24, 2011)

[34] Legacy of the Comics Code, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, (last visited April 11, 2014).

[35] History of Comics Censorship, Part 4, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, (last visited April 12, 2014).

[36] F.A.Q., Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, (last visited April 12, 2014).

[37] Cigarette Advertising Code, 1964, art. IV, Sec. 1(a)(iv), Bates No. 689330201

[38] Id. at art. 1, Sec. 1(a).

[39] Cigarette Manufacturers Announce Advertising Code, Hill & Knowlton, Inc., April 27, 1964, Bates No. LG0223487-LG0223489.

[40] J.W. Richards ET AL., The tobacco industry’s code of advertising in the United States: myth and reality, 5 Tobacco Control, 295, 297-98 (1996).

[41] Richard W. Pollay, Targeting the Young is an Old Story: A History of Cigarette Advertising to the Young, in Contemporary Marketing History: Proceedings of the Sixth Conference on Historical Research in Marketing and Marketing Thought, 239, 269 (Jeffery B. Schmidt ET AL. EDS., 1994).

[42] Id.

[43] Richards, supra note 40, at 297.

[44] The Magician’s Helper, 1:3 Willie the Penguin (Standard Comics Sept. 1951). (Copyright notice lists Brown and Williamson Tobacco Co., Inc. as the copyright holder).

[45] Id. at p. 1.

[46] Brown and Williamson Willie the Penguin Advertisement, 1952, Bates No. KOOL1517.

[47] American Armed Forces Features Advertisement, Feb. 1956, Bates No. 502474114 (reran advertisement from Nov. 1955); American Armed Forces Features Advertisement, March 1956, Bates No. 502474112; American Armed Forces Features Advertisement, Aug. 3 1958, Bates No. 502218448.

[48] Anon., Liggett & Meyers Advertising Memorandum, May 5, 1964, Bates No. LWDOJ 00000248-LWDOJ00249.

[49] Id.

[50] L.W. Bruff, Letter to Frederick P. Hass, May 7, 1964, Bates No. LWDOJ00246.

[51] Elkin Kaufman, Lennen & Newell Inc., Letter to Lorillard, January 22, 1962, Bates No. 04408623.

[52] Richards, supra note 40, at 302.

[53] Id. at 307.


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