BANGOR, MAINE -- Pleasures in the Bangor Daily News include literate cultural reviews, well-reasoned editorials and ample space for letters to the editor. Another uplift is what's not in its pages: cigarette ads.
The relegation of tobacco company deceits to an advertising ashtray, a decision made about a year ago by the publisher, means that the paper -- Maine's largest daily -- comes before the public with a single standard. It says no both editorially and financially to cigarettes.
Employees are not allowed to smoke in the building either, which means, in sub-zero winters, ducking out the door to risk frostbite along with cancer. All this gives the Daily News something of a moral scoop. It is one of the few U.S. newspapers to pass the smokeout consistency test. Most of the other 1,650 dailies flunk. They shake a finger against the evils of the weed but open a palm to the ads.
When I went by the Daily News to inhale its clean air and clear thinking, I was surprised that the paper was something less than crusading in its decision to butt out. The managing editor and editorial page editor told me that because the Daily News's stance had seemed the logical one to take, marching to the high ground for preachment wasn't necessary, nor was it the proper Yankee thing to do. Neither editor could recall whether or not the paper had editorialized about the advertising ban. A check in the files confirmed that it hadn't.
A newspaper that voluntarily denies access to the tobacco industry is an oddity in the United States, but not elsewhere. In Canada, where smoking-related illnesses kill 35,000 people annually, major dailies began saying no to cigarette companies in 1987. The Canadian paper chase was followed in 1988 by the Tobacco Products Control Act, which banned cigarette advertising in all newspapers and magazines. That put Canada in line with Italy, Portugal and most Scandinavian countries.
The ban by Canadian newspapers has attracted the interests of some progressive U.S. politicians who are moving to do legislatively what newspapers, with a few exceptions like the Bangor Daily News, won't do themselves.
Gasping like chain smokers, newspaper publishers, predictably, are opposing the Tobacco Control and Health Protection Act, a bill of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) now before the House. It would, among other sensible prohibitions, limit ads to showing only a pack of cigarettes against a white background. No more cowboys driving the herd over the high country, no more nubile nymphs taking their drags next to burbling brooks.
At hearings before the House health and environment subcommittee in July, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, lining up with the Tobacco Institute, took refuge under the First Amendment. Its statement claimed that Waxman's bill, which would also require warnings to cover 20 percent of a cigarette ad, "would be a significant escalation of regulation of constitutionally protected speech."
This argument, which allows publishers to take to the barricades as stalwarts of free speech, is as wispy as smoke. Plenty of papers routinely reject ads for lawful products. In the spring 1987 issue of the Nieman Reports, Morton Mintz, then of The Washington Post, discussed the willingness of papers to forgo ad revenues when one product or another raised a hackle. The Los Angeles Times said no to ads for "streaking services," the Arizona Republic for X-rated movies, the Detroit Free Press for "portrayals of human bodies that aren't discreetly clad" and the Cleveland Plain Dealer for escort services and fortune tellers.
If the massive assault on public health that cigarette ads represent -- $2.6 billion a year paid to newspapers and magazines to sell death -- isn't enough to stir publishers into action, change may have to come from below. Charles Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly, whose acceptance of corporate advertising excludes tobacco companies, cuts through the smoke: "There are a lot of people in the news business who see themselves as courageous crusaders but who I regard as cowards for their failure to stand up to their bosses on cigarette ads. Why don't these star, well-paid reporters and editors say to management, 'You take your share of the lost revenues and we'll take ours?' "
If that happens -- don't inhale deeply while waiting -- labor would do what management won't: voluntarily take a hit in the paycheck. The public would have a bit of what it says is rarely found in the media: good news.