[EDITOR’S NOTE: This article origianlly appeared in the January 1979 issue of Mother Jones. It has not been textually altered in any way…thus, some of the facts and statements are now outdated.]
A gathering storm darkens the desert sky. Heroic movie music. The TV screen shows the stark, barren mountains of northern New Mexico, and in their shadow, a lone cowboy slowly herding his cattle home. We first see him riding in distance behind the ambling herd. Then closer; his head is bowed beneath a sweaty, broad-brimmed oversized hat. The scene could be straight out of one of the old Marlboro commercials…until the cowboy comes close enough for us to see the oxygen tank strapped to his saddle. Tubes from it run up his nostrils. “New Mexico rancher John Holmes has emphysema,” the crisp British voice of the narrator informs us, “brought on by years of heavy smoking.”
This scene is from a TV documentary called Death in the West. It is one of the most powerful anti-smoking films ever made. You will never see it.
In fact, for Mother Jones to recently view a pirated videotape of the documentary was technically a violation of a London court order.
Death in the West was filmed in 1976 by director Martin Smith, reporter Peter Taylor and a crew from This Week, a weekly show on Britain’s independent Thames Television network. The show is roughly the British equivalent of 60 Minutes. Taylor’s searing half-hour film simply intercuts three kinds of footage. The first is old Marlboro commercials–cowboys ligiting up aroudn the chuck wagon, galloping across the plains at sunset, and so forth. The second is interviews with two Philip Morris executives who claim that nobody knows if cigarettes cause cancer. The third is interviews with six real cowboys in the American West who have lung cancer or, in one case, emphysema. And after each cowboy, the film shows the victim’s doctor testifying that he believes his patient’s condition was caused by heavy cigarette smoking.
After opening with a commercial showing Marlboro men around a campfire, the film cuts to another campfire, where narrator Taylor is interviewing cowboy Bob Julian. “For Bob,” Taylor says, “the last roundup will soon be over.”
“I started smoking when I was a kid followoing these broncobusters,” says Julian. “I thought that to be a man you had to have a cigarette in your mouth. It took me years to discover that all I got out of it was lung cancer. I’m going to die a young man.” (He live only a few months after the interview.)
Emphysema victim John Holmes, the man with the oxygen tank on his horse, tells what it’s like to periodically gasp for breath. “It’s hard to describe…it feels as if someone has their fingers down in my chest.” Another man interviewed, Harold Lee, had only a few months to live, and you can see it in his stubbled, emaciated face.
Death in the West was shown only once, from London, to an audience of some 12 million TV viewers, in September 1976. It was high noon for Philip Morris, and the company walked in with guns blazing. Philip Morris promply sued Thames Television and the got a court order preventing the film from being shown until its suit could be heard. The order even prohibits the filmmakers from discussing the film publicly. Despite its tradition of free speech, Britain has nothing quite resembling First Amendment protection for the press.
Philip Morris sued Thames for deception and breach of copyright, claiming that it was “sandbagged and double-crossed” into allowing Marlboro commercials to be used in a film the cigarette company thought was going to depict its product more favorably. This is a little hard to believe, given the fact that Peter Taylor had previously made several widely viewed films about cigarettes for British television, which were, to put it mildly, not pro-industry. One of them is License to Kill, a film about the tobacco industry; another is a profile of a man dying of lung cancer.
Philip Morris also has spent considerable money trying to prove that the six cigarette victims in the film were not bona-fide cowboys. “They sent a couple of lawyers from Kansas City to see me. They just showed up on my doorstep,” said rancher Holmes in a tlephone interview recently. “They wanted to prove that maybe other things than cigarettes had caused my emphysema. They were very sly in their questions. One of the men took down everything I said, like a court reporter. They wanted to know how long I had been in the cattle business, was it my vocation or avocation? I’ve had this ranch 20 years, but they tried to make a big thing of the fact that some of that time I was also teaching school.”
Obviously, cowboys who spend all their days on horseback and around chuck wagons probably don’t exist any more, but Taylor and his crew insist that they found men who were their closest possible equivalent. Their point, of course, was to show that despite Marlboro advertisiung, virile, rugged outdoor types can get lung cancer as easily as anyone else. One of the cigarette victims they filmed was a former cattlebrand inspector (the Philip Morris lawyers didn’t reach him in time and found only an angry widow). Another was an Oklahoma rodeo rider; another, a man who had been born and brough up on a cattle ranch. Four of the six men are now dead.
What Philip Morris obviously most wanted to prevent with its lawsuit was the showing of Death in the West in the United States. Marlboro is the world’s largest-selling cigarette; but the huge American market, where the brand is No. 1 by a large margin, is where the money really is. There are two trillion Marlboros smoked in the United States each year, and the widespread U.S. showing of Death in the West could damage the he-man image promoted by the most successful cigarette advertising in history ($27.2 million worth in 1977). Philip Morris has good reason for its fears: before the injuction, the American Cancer Society was eager to use the film in its anti-smoking program, and 60 Minutes was negotiating to buy it from Thames TV. Officials at 60 Minutes had seen a print of the film and were enthusiastic about using a part of it on the air. “But then,” explains the show’s senior producer, Palmer Williams, “the people from Philip Morris–and I don’t know how–heard we were interested. They came over here right away and wanted to know why. The very next day, out came this Queen’s Bench Warrant or whatever the hell it was, barring Thames TV from selling the film anywhere in the world. So we couldn’t get it.”
Philip Morris was also doubtlessly embarrassed bcause one of its two executives interviewed by Taylor, Dr. Helmut R. R. Wakeham, vice president for its science and technology, USA division, makes a fool of himself on camera. Defending cigarettes medically is, after all, a pretty thankless task. Wakeham is unnerved by Taylor’s relentless questioning and fails miserably. First, Taylor prods him into admitting that known carcinogens are found in cigarettes. Trapped, Wakeham flounders: “There are all kinds of things that are unhealthy…what are we to do, stop living?” Wakeham dismised a World Health Organization report on smoking as being full of “extreme statements” and says, “The average doctor is a layman with respect to intimate knowledge of smoking and health.” When Taylor presses him again about the carcinogens, he lamely replies, “Anything can be considered harmful. Apple sauce is harmful if you get too much of it.”
James Bowling, Philip Morris’ senior vice president and director of corporate affairs, and the company’s point man in its anti-anti-smoking campaign, fares much better. Philip Morris’ public-relations operation is to the tobacco industry what Mobil’s is to the oil industry, and Bowling is the consummate smoothie. The lesson seems to be: if you’re faced with defending an impossible position, don’t lose your cool, pretend ignorance and cite statistics, even if they’re not true. Saying “I happen to believe in what I’m doing,” Bowling calmly lectures Taylor in a Southern accent, chain-smoking the whole while. “If I thought that cigarettes cause cancer,” he confidently tells Taylor through clouds of smoke, “I would not smoke myself, I would not permit my wife or children to smoke. Why do 98 percent of smokers never get anything? [Not true: one in ten American smokers get lung cancer, says the National Cancer Institute, not to mention those stricken with other disease.] Or why do nonsmokers get lung cancer? Doesn’t it all add up to the fact that we don’t know and that nobody knows?”
Death in the West will almost certainly never be shown again. Philip Morris says it will settle its suit out of court if Thames Television returns the commercials and all footage of Wakeham and Bowling. This would eviscerate the film which is, of course, what the company wants. Although the good guys would probably win in court, the suit will never come to trial because it would cost Thames Television an estimated quarter-million dollars to mount a full-scale defense–money the company doesn’t want to spend, since that’s far more than it could earn by further sales of the film. Taylor, film director Smith and the other people who worked on Death in the West can’t afford that kind of expense themselves. Today, the film remains locked in a London court vault, headed off at the pass.