For some months I have been perusing the Legacy Tobacco Documents Library. For more information on this database of tobacco company documents that resulted from a legal case against the tobacco industry, see a previous post, “Tobacco Facts #3”:
My research of the Legacy Library database has involved looking for letters sent from children to tobacco companies. And there are so many of them! I’ve selected some, and will be posting them on this site over the next week or two.
What amazes me is that (1) hundreds of kids wrote letters to the tobacco companies, (2) many of the kids were very knowledgeable and wise as to the problems associated with cigarettes, (3) many kids did not appear to get a reply from the tobacco companies even when they kindly and politely asked for a response and (4) some of the responses from the tobacco companies were unbelievably despicable!
Here are some of the letters from kids to tobacco company executives:
Letter written by hand from a young boy, age not stated, to R.J.Reynolds tobacco company in 1975:
“To Whom It May Concern
I am doing a science project in
my school on your product, I have
a few questions to ask about your
First of all I would like
to know how much tar and
nicotine is in this product. I would
like to find out the amount of
tobacco that is in the product.
If possible could you tell
me what kind of tests you
have done on your product.
This was the response from the public relations department of RJR to this boy:
“Dear Mr, XXXXXXX :
Your letter inquiring about the “tar” and nicotine content of
cigarettes has come to this department for reply……..
The controversy surrounding “tar” and nicotine content in cigarettes
in relation to health continues to be discussed without definite conclusions.
However, a report from the U.S. Surgeon General exonerated nicotine
in the amount found in cigarettes from being harmful .
The tobacco industry is vitally interested in questions concerning
smoking and health, and if conclusive laboratory proof should substantiate
that any element in tobacco or tobacco smoke is causative
of a disease, we believe it would be possible to remove the offending
element from the product…..
T . K . Cahill
Public Relations Department”
Now, these letters were written in 1975, which was 11 years after the US and 13 years after the UK governments had acknowledged that cigarettes were harmful to health and that they clearly caused lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema/ chronic bronchitis. There was no scientific controversy. Yet the RJ Reynolds response, to a young boy I should add, mentions the health issues as being “controversial.” The last sentence is even more remarkable, because the tobacco company’s response is that if tobacco or tobacco smoke is found to cause “a disease” they believe it would “be possible to remove the offending element from the product.” Well, Tobacco Companies, shall we say that scores of chemicals in tobacco and tobacco smoke, including many carcinogens that have been well studied, are known to cause many serious diseases, yet you haven’t taken them out of your products! Perhaps that’s because there are too many disease-causing “elements” in your products and the only real way you can take those elements out is to stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products? And that would be damaging to your financial profits, wouldn’t it? As for nicotine being “exonerated” from being harmful, it is the addictive component of tobacco and it is nicotine that keeps people smoking and makes it so very difficult for them to quit!
In 1990 another boy wrote a letter to R. J. Reynolds tobacco company:
“Dear Mr Johnston:
My school has been studying about cigarettes and tobacco and
other harmful products that kill people. You
might know that already, so you should know that smoking is
bad for you. So tell me why you sell cigarettes. For the
money, right? Is that all you care about, the money. You
should care about the earth. Some time in the future, the
earth might die all because of cigarettes and other harmful
products . That’s why Dakotas do not what you putting
“Dakota” on packs of cigarettes. South Dakota and North
Dakota both have clean air and good wildlife and we would
like it to stay that way……. In fact don’t make cigarettes
I couldn’t find a response to this young man from R.J.Reynolds.
Here’s another letter from an 8th grader to R.J.Reynolds tobacco company postmarked 1999:
“To Whom It May Concern,
Why do you let people get lung cancer?
And why do you broadcast commercials that target teens?
If you want to sell cigarettes to people, tell the people that sell your
cigarettes not to sell to teens or people under 21 years old.
My grandfather died because of cigarettes. Please stop selling
cigarettes. Please send me a personal response to this letter. I don’t
want a form letter! I want you, as the head of the company to give your honest answer.
Again, I found no letter of response to this young gentleman.
And another letter, this time from 19 year-old “Rick” to Philip Morris:
“I am very concerned about the advertising that you use to sell cigarettes and
other tobacco products. You show beautiful, young, healthy people smoking cigarettes.
This is false advertising, if the people you used in your advertisements really smoked,
they would have yellow teeth and skin, plus they could barely do whatever activity you
had them doing because they would be out of breath. Perhaps you should use people
who really smoke so consumers have a clear picture of the harmful effects of tobacco.
The beautiful people that you show smoking do not give us a correct picture. You
should use older people to show what it looks like after you smoke for a long time,
because it would show wrinkles and unhealthy people.”
Rick, also, didn’t appear to get a response from Philip Morris.
These letters, preserved in the Legacy Library, bring to life the feelings and concerns of young people- the very people who have been, and still are, being targeted by the tobacco industry. They bring out the lack of concern tobacco companies had for most of these kids, because, as far as I can see, it was the rule rather than the exception for the tobacco companies to ignore the letters and fail to reply to them. Even when there was a reply, some of them were outrageous and played down- even denied- the harmful nature of tobacco.
In forthcoming posts I’ll be reproducing more letters from children to the tobacco companies, and I’ll also be posting letters from adults who were dying from tobacco-related diseases; adults who pleaded (in vain) with tobacco executives to help them quit their addiction to smoking; and adults who lost loved ones from smoking cigarettes. You’ll see how desperate, how scared, often angry, some of these members of the public were, and how uncaring and unscrupulous the tobacco companies were in their handling of these sad correspondences.