‘Smokers are now treated like lepers’

David Goerlitz was a star of cigarette ads until he turned against Big Tobacco. Now, however, he thinks the anti-smokers have gone too far.

Christopher Snowdon

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David Goerlitz has never found it easy to bite his lip. For seven years, he was the face of Winston cigarettes, appearing in 42 advertisements and on billboards all over the world.

‘I happened to have been the rugged type that RJ Reynolds wanted for this particular “Search and Rescue” campaign. [And it] apparently worked because we moved Winston from number four to number two in sales. The problem I had was that when I admitted to my kids and everybody else I talked to that it was my job to get kids to smoke, the more pissed off I became at myself.’

In 1988, at the age of 39, Goerlitz’s growing unease at working for the tobacco industry boiled over into open dissent. He publicly denounced his employer RJ Reynolds for marketing cigarettes at children and joined America’s emerging anti-smoking movement.

The ‘Winston man’ had one particular tale to tell that quickly went global. On the set of a photo shoot, Goerlitz, then a heavy smoker, discovered that none of the tobacco executives present was a smoker. He asked one of them why that was and was told: ‘We reserve that right for the poor, the young, the black and the stupid.’ (See the YouTube clip below.)

On television, Goerlitz’s later straight-talking criticisms of the tobacco industry helped turn public opinion against it. In court, his revelations helped seal a $246billion settlement between the industry and the US government – a deal that explicitly ‘prohibits direct or indirect targeting of youth in advertising’.

When that settlement was signed in 1998, it was supposed to represent a fresh start in the campaign against smoking. Instead, says Goerlitz, it led to the anti-smoking movement becoming ‘criminal and corrupt’. Out of loyalty to the anti-smoking cause, he has held his tongue for 10 years in the hope that the movement could reform itself. No more. Now, he tells me, he feels ‘kind of like the guy who built the atom bomb and then regretted it later. I helped create this monster.’

That ‘monster’, the vast and influential anti-smoking lobby, was a much smaller entity when Goerlitz got involved with it in the late 1980s. With the tobacco industry maintaining its wall of silence, it was rare for former employees to give away industry secrets and Goerlitz was welcomed with open arms by health groups looking for ammunition to use against Big Tobacco.

‘No one had ever come out against the tobacco companies before from the inside… So here I was, saying that the tobacco companies do indeed target kids, which is what made me the golden boy for the newly forming anti-tobacco movement.

‘I was on television with Peter Jennings and Sam Donaldson and Dan Rather and I became ABC Person of the Week. I was just all over the place and it was getting the tobacco industry upset.’

On a mission to make amends, Goerlitz hit the road and told his story at a Philadelphia high school. It marked the start of his new life as a public speaker that has taken him to 49 states and seven countries. In total, Goerlitz estimates that six million kids have seen him deliver his message in the past two decades, either in person or on screen.

‘In the first year and a half, I couldn’t get anyone to pay my gas. I was so passionate about trying to undo the damage. When you admit you’ve done something wrong, it’s pretty hard not to feel guilty about it.

‘But I never intended to become an anti-smoking zealot; that has never been a part of who I am. I’m just livid at the fact that now I’m guilty by association because of the people in the anti-smoking movement who are so vindictive and hateful.’

Goerlitz’s empathy with smokers is one reason why he finds himself out of line with a movement that has become preoccupied with ‘denormalising’ smoking to the point where it is denormalising human beings. Groups like Action on Smoking on Health (USA) have called for smokers to be banned from fostering children and has suggested businesses should not employ smokers. Goerlitz has no time for ASH’s founder John Banzhaf (‘a Michael Moore wannabe’), nor does he have time for those who vilify smokers.

Goerlitz believes smokers and non-smokers can get along just fine with a little give-and-take and common sense. ‘There’s none of that in the tobacco control movement, and there hasn’t been for the last 10 or 12 years that I’m aware of. In every other [tobacco control] programme, smokers are offended, they’re harassed, they’re treated like lepers and second-class citizens and child abusers.’

Incredibly, since he has not smoked for over 20 years, Goerlitz has recently felt the prejudice against smokers first-hand. Every December for seven years, he toured schools in the eastern US state of Maryland. In the eighth year, he was not invited. The reason? The state of Maryland no longer uses ‘former addicts’ in their tobacco programmes.

Goerlitz is forthright on the ‘junk science’ behind the increasingly outlandish claims made about second-hand smoke. The threat of passive smoking has been the key to far-reaching smoking bans around the world during Goerlitz’s time in the tobacco control movement. Today, these bans are being extended to the outdoors and, in parts of California, into people’s own homes. I ask him how dangerous he thinks second-hand smoke really is.

‘I believe that there’s some harm for someone who’s susceptible or genetically predisposed to some conditions. But I think the numbers are made up. The 52,000 [annual US deaths from second-hand smoke] that everybody talks about – the numbers jump all over the place. I’ve never heard a consistent number in my 15 years of talking about it. Y’know, it’s 40,000, then it’s 52,000, then it’s 55,000…’

The number certainly never goes down: no matter how many people quit and no matter how many smoking bans are introduced, the number of people dying from passive smoking never decreases. When Goerlitz started asking questions within the tobacco control movement, he was appalled by the reaction: ‘How dare I ask them? They’re professionals. How dare! That’s what pisses me off… and that’s what I’ve been seeing in tobacco control for the last 10, 12 years. They’ve got something to hide.’

In an increasingly dogmatic movement, Goerlitz remains a pragmatist, trying to steer a middle road. Whatever his misgivings about the ‘junk science’, he believes that children should be protected from second-hand smoke, by law if need be.

‘I think that people should use common sense, but we know that people don’t. I would like to see all public places where kids and pregnant women will go to eat a meal or watch a movie or wait in a lobby, without having to breathe someone else’s smoke.’

What about the right to smoke in a bar? ‘Absolutely they should have the right to smoke in a bar! Abso-fricking-lutely. Only because children don’t generally hang out in a bar. Bars should be a place where a smoker should be able to go to have a drink, have a pint, have a six-pack or whatever, and smoke his or her cigarettes.

‘Treat people with dignity and respect. Once you turn on them and try to dehumanise them and make them feel like lepers you’ve got yourself a war. And unfortunately, with a war there has to be participation and all you’re hearing in this tobacco war are these loud-mouthed anti-smoking zealots, the wackos, the grab-bag full of nuts that are there. And you have the extremists on the pro-smoking side.

‘Prohibition has never worked. We’ve seen it. We’ve tried it. It doesn’t work. Let’s try something new, and that is common sense. Higher taxes don’t work. Prohibition doesn’t work. Telling the truth does, in a way that brings people together rather than separating them.’

To this end, Goerlitz plans to set up his own tobacco control programme for kids on YouTube. He will continue to tour schools, but is cutting the cord with the mainstream tobacco control movement.

Finally, I ask a question that would have seemed absurd 20 years ago. Who is more honest, the tobacco companies or the anti-smoking movement? ‘There’s not much of a difference, but I would say the tobacco companies.’ It’s an extraordinary answer from a man who has spent two decades attacking Big Tobacco. ‘Because the tobacco industry has been caught. The anti-tobacco movement hasn’t been caught yet’, he says.

Christopher Snowdon is the author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist, a history of anti-smoking. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) The book will be launched at a special evening event on Monday 22 June in central London (contact Forest for further information). Visit Christopher’s website here.

David Goerlitz talking about being the ‘Winston Man’

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi looked at how the accusation of denial shuts down free thinking. Rob Lyons looked at the crazy world of England’s smoking ban and accused UK health campaigners of smoking smokers out of polite society. spiked writers around the world reported on the global crusade against the ‘evil weed’. Nathalie Rothschild reported on a rare protest against the English smoking ban. Mick Hume reflected on what the ban says about today’s society. Dolan Cummings argued that freedom should not be for sale. Or read more at spiked issue Smoking.

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Topics Politics