‘Common Law’ Looks Back at the Battle Against Tobacco
The first episode of the new season of “Common Law,” the podcast sponsored by the University of Virginia School of Law, is now available and tackles the legal and social activism that helped curb the smoking epidemic in the United States.
In 1964, when Surgeon General Luther Terry issued his landmark report about the dangers of smoking, more than 40 percent of the nation smoked, and commercial appeals that glamorized cigarettes were everywhere.
“Tobacco was the most-advertised product on TV at the time,” Milov says.
But lawyers and activists promoted a new idea — nonsmokers’ rights — that pushed forward an agenda that the surgeon general and the health community had trouble advancing.
Milov points to the work of John F. Banzhaf III, a law professor at George Washington University who, early in his career, challenged the Federal Communications Commission’s fairness doctrine, asking that public health information be given equal time to cigarette advertising.
“So in a decision that took everybody by surprise, probably Banzhaf himself as well, the commission basically says, yeah, this is a subject of public importance,” Milov says.
In taking on Big Tobacco, Banzhaf emulated some of the tactics of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, whose activist supporters were dubbed “Nader’s Raiders” by the press. When Banzhaf became a professor, he encouraged his students — “Banzhaf’s Bandits” — to take on class projects that would be high-profile challenges to the status quo, such as smoking on airplanes.
Milov also looks at the broader efforts of individuals and groups organizing under the cause of nonsmokers’ rights, which built off the tactics of the civil rights movement and the women’s movement.
The deans then ponder the implications for modern social movements.
“Common Law” is available on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, YouTube, Spotify and other popular places you can listen to podcasts, including Amazon Alexa devices. This episode was recorded at the Virginia Quarterly Review and produced by Robert Armengol and Sydney Halleman.
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