Hey doc, got a light? Stanford exhibit features 'medical' cigarette ads

STANFORD, Calif. - Robert Jackler, MD, professor and chair of otolaryngology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, gestured toward the glossy cigarette ad. In the 1940s image, smoke spiraled upward from a casually held cigarette past a black microscope. A doctor's white lab coat was barely visible in the corner of the page, adorning the smoker leaning toward the microscope lens. "Always Buy Chesterfields," the advertisement read.

"It's never a specific doctor," Jackler said, as he explained the ad hanging in the medical school's Lane Medical Library. "It's always just the image of the perfect doctor. The wise and benign physician."

Six months ago, Robert Jackler and his wife, artist Laurie Jackler, started collecting old magazine ads that used pseudoscience and the image of a white-coated doctor to sell cigarettes.

"We started out with a few of them," said Robert Jackler, the Edward C. and Amy H. Sewall Professor in Otorhinolaryngology. "I put them up in my office and they became conversation starters. People were shocked by them. People found them humorous."

Shortly after the Jacklers bought these first ads on eBay, Robert Jackler's mother, a long-term smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Motivated by this personal connection, the Jacklers' fascination with smoking ads turned from a hobby into a campaign with a lofty mission. Now, they have hundreds of ads and an exhibit on display at Lane Library. The exhibit is titled "Not a cough in a carload: Images from the tobacco industry's campaign to hide the hazards of smoking."

"Our message is really about deception," Robert Jackler said of the exhibit. "It's about the willingness of the industry to sell at any cost. These are merchants of death."

Some ads show spectacled scientists peering through microscopes, others show bright-eyed doctors surrounded by children. All proclaim health benefits of smoking and cite medical statistics that the Jacklers called "completely bogus."

"Made especially to prevent sore throats," reads an ad for Craven A cigarettes. "Doctors agree that Kools are soothing to your throat," says another image.

The advertisements range in date from 1927 to 1954, and come from such publications as Life and The Saturday Evening Post. After getting the ads, yellowed and fading, the Jacklers scanned them into their computer and digitally enhanced them to restore their original vibrancy.

The result is an exhibit that is as stunningly beautiful as it is alarming.

"We put the images on black velvet," explained Laurie Jackler, "because from far away, you look at them and they're pretty striking, pretty beautiful. We thought, ‘Wow, they're so luscious!' And then you get closer and realize what the images are actually saying."

One ad, among Robert Jackler's favorites, depicts an orange jack-o-lantern and reads, "We don't try to scare you with medical claims. Old Gold cures just one thing...The World's Best Tobacco." A box at the bottom of the ad, however, makes bold medical claims about Old Gold.

The Jacklers, along with Robert Proctor, PhD, a Stanford professor of the history of science, are creating a book of the images to spread their message and raise money for lung cancer research.

Proctor, who has studied the history of the tobacco industry for more than 20 years and has been building up his own collection of ads for just as long, is outspoken about the tactics used in the advertising. He talks about the campaign to "manufacture doubt," a well-funded strategy by the industry to insinuate uncertainty about the hazards of smoking.

Though scientists began making connections between lung cancer and smoking in the early part of the century, the industry did not admit the health risks until relatively recently, said Proctor.

Proctor and the Jacklers tell of how cigarette companies would descend on medical conventions to get phony statistics. Doctors were given packs of cigarettes at hospitality booths and then surveyed at the exit to learn what cigarette they had in their pocket. Taglines such as, "More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette," were the result.

"We want people to see the audacity and depravity of the industry," said Proctor. He said this misleading advertising still exists today, just in a different way.

Proctor and the Jacklers hope that people who see the exhibit come away as disturbed as they are about the deception. "I don't have time to be a fly on the wall here," said Robert Jackler at the exhibit. "But I would love to see people's reactions."

A guest book next to the collection asks visitors to record their reactions to the ads.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

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