Hardly a day goes by without an editorial or a columnist in some newspaper spanking a corporation or an industry for coming up short on social responsibility. Frequent visitors to the editorial knee, for example, have been the chemical companies for dumping cancer-producing waste.
Last week the policy-making House of Delegates of the American Medical Association came out in opposition to all tobacco advertising and announced an intention to seek national legislation prohibiting it. The move was a sudden burst of activism prompted by a recognition that, as one member- delegate put it, smoking is "the No. 1 health problem in this country."
At stake are some large numbers. Cigarette advertising provides about $2.6 billion a year to the media to keep sales up. Cigarettes are the most heavily advertised product in the country and last year brought in 9 percent of all magazine advertising revenue and 1 percent of all newspaper advertising revenue.
The other large number is that each year smoking is blamed for an estimated 350,000 American deaths a year. This is a number so large it becomes abstract, but one anti-smoking crusader, Alan Blum, a family physician and editor of the New York State Journal of Medicine, said it might be better visualized as the equivalent of three fully loaded jumbo jets going down every day of the year -- with all lives lost.
What was the reaction of the media to the AMA proposal?
If you were expecting a show of financial sacrifice in favor of public good, you would have been very disappointed.
Instead, the American Newspaper Publishers Association and the Magazine Publishers Association told the AMA: "Products that can be legally sold in our society are entitled to be advertised; if it is legal to sell a product it should be legal to advertise it." The groups joined the tobacco industry in a reminder of First Amendment protections of freedom of speech. Furthermore, the tobacconists argued, advertising does not persuade people to start smoking, but only induces smokers to try different brands.
A Laurel resident who read Post reporter Susan Okie's reports wrote, "What if one 10-year-old child saw just one ad in his parent's Post one day and tried a cigarette, and liked it, and tried more, and was praised by his peers, and smoked more, and became addicted, and died from lung cancer at an early age? I just don't see how you can rationalize risking such a scenario for just two-thirds of 1 percent of your total (Post advertising) revenue."
Journalists, from publishers on down, are understandably apprehensive about any legislation that tinkers with precious freedom of the press. But is there another approach, one that deals with the startling disparity between the news reports that describe the evils of smoking and the advertisements that glorify handsome, sophisticated puffers, whatever the brand they are inhaling?
In this era of voluntarism, when the business community is constantly urging Congress and regulatory agencies to stand aside and "let us take care of this problem ourselves," couldn't the newspapers of the country agree -- voluntarily and collectively -- to refuse cigarette advertising? Couldn't they do what is right rather than only what is not prohibited by law?
Most papers take great pride in the service they render to their communities, not only in providing information but also in philanthropic activities that provide scholarships and underwrite athletic tournments. Is not helping some youngster avert the tortures of life-shortening lung cancer even a greater gift? A greater service?
So far, according to Dr. Blum of the New York State Journal of Medicine, of the almost 1,700 daily newspapers, only the publishers of the Salt Lake City Deseret News, the Christian Science Monitor, Bluffton (Ind.) News- Banner, Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record, Kirksville (Mo.) Express and News and the Salina (Kan.) Journal, have banned the "most addictive drug" from their advertising columns. Among magazines, Reader's Digest, Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post have a similar policy.
Is there any media group for social responsibility? Are there any more companies for corporate responsibility?