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Taking on tobacco

Thursday 16 December, 2021

50 years since first anti-tobacco ad aired on television

At the end of the 1960s, tobacco advertising was ubiquitous on Australian television, with a tobacco ad being run every eight minutes.

Former Cancer Council Victoria CEO Nigel Gray was concerned that the saturation of tobacco advertising normalised smoking, particularly among children. But changing advertising regulation required convincing politicians that the law allowing tobacco advertising

Required changing. We needed to convince politicians that the voluntary advertising standards that existed were insufficient and was merely a political cover that allowed the harmful advertising to continue.

In 1970, Cancer Council Victoria decided to produce the very first anti-tobacco television advertisements and films. Rather than copying the first anti-smoking adverts released in the US in 1968, which showed the horror of lung cancer, Cancer Council Victoria aimed to satirise the pervasiveness of tobacco adverts in order to gain public and media attention and to push the issue before state and federal politicians.

On 5 June 1971, Cancer Council Victoria’s first anti-tobacco ad aired on television. Our antitobacco adverts featured two famous British television actors, Warren Mitchell of the sitcom ‘Till Death Do Us Part and Miriam Karlin of the sitcom The Rag Trade and film A Clockwork Orange.

Anti tobacco ad

Nobel Prize winner Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet was also recruited to make an advertisement that gave the campaign scientific legitimacy and called on governments to ban tobacco advertising on television.

When many television managers objected that the adverts were “knocking copy” because they were denigrating tobacco, Cancer Council Victoria reported to the press that television channels were preventing a Nobel Prize winner from telling the public about the dangers of smoking. This move forced the television channels to honour their contracts to air the other antismoking adverts starring Mitchell and Karlin.

Their airing in turn provided a platform for advocating for government legislating new standards for tobacco advertising. However, the television channels refused to show one advert starring Australian actor Fred Parslow who did a send-up of the Marlboro Man. The channels claimed it was because the advert publicly attacked a well-known brand, however the channels were the recipients of large advertising revenues from cigarette manufacturers. The Australian Broadcasting Control Board rejected the Cancer Council’s appeal against the censoring.

Anti tobacco ad

From this pivotal moment in public health history, tobacco advertisements were banned on television and radio from 1976 and kickstarted 50 years of public health messaging and campaigns warning Australians about the dangers of tobacco and other cancer risks.