Eric Lawson portrayed the Marlboro man in the late 70’s. This month (Jan. 10), he passed away from respiratory failure caused by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Lawson was reported to have smoked since age 14 and it is believed that the cause of death is smoking related.
Given the sudden and intense battling over electronic cigarette ads and their status as a potential public health miracle, this could represent a moment of somber reflection for the community and industry. Lawson smoked for 58 years. In the time following his appearances as the Marlboro Man, he appeared in anti-smoking commercials and some segments on the effects of smoking.
Lawson in many ways represented the transition of many smokers across the 70’s on into the 90’s, 2000’s, and now — first from rugged manliness and charm, then to disappointing attempts to quit, and finally a slide downhill into health problems and, eventually, death.
Electronic cigarette ads only really started being a thing in the last 2 years. Opponents (often called prohibitionists) have regularly compared these ads to those of the Marlboro Man. They claim that these ads glamorize e-cig use (and thereby smoking) by showing celebrities using and endorsing them.
But this is a difficult argument to make in the face of the latest research — which suggests electronic cigarettes encourage less use of cigarettes, provide a gateway away from smoking, and provide the benefits of smoking without 99% of the harm traditional cigarettes bring. We haven’t been able to defeat smoking with counter-marketing, villainizing ad campaigns, and even hefty taxes and smoking bans. Maybe presenting a better product, and marketing it as well as smoking was marketed in the past is the silver bullet tobacco control needs.
The reality still stands that the majority of electronic cigarette users are middle-aged and older smokers looking for a way to quit. The Marlboro Man was of their time. His death by way of smoking-related complications might be a sobering reality for many long-term smokers.
Say an 18-year-old saw the Marlboro Man in 1978 (when Eric Lawson first appeared in the role) and began smoking. That individual today is 54 or 55. For many in this age group, smoking is the one thing that will prevent them from enjoying the next 20 or 30 years (if they have that much). The death of the Marlboro Man might be a kick in the seat that it’s time to make a change.