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‘Winston Man’ Fought Big Tobacco To The Last

UNITED STATES – Jacqui Goddard – Mar 07, 2009

Alan Landers started smoking at nine. Later, he would become a hard-core addict – getting through 2-1/2 packs a day. Until his death last month, he was leading a multimillion-dollar courtroom crusade against the US tobacco industry after being diagnosed with lung and throat cancer.

It was a crusade that marked a big turnaround from the 1960s and 1970s, when Landers was known as the “Winston Man” and appeared on billboards and in magazine advertisements across the world promoting cigarettes with such slogans as “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

He was 68 when he died.

During his anti-smoking campaign, he visited hundreds of schools, made appearances for the World Health Organisation and testified before the US Congress.

His argument was his personal story. He told of puffing through, literally, cartons of cigarettes in photographic sessions as he sought to achieve the ideal spiral of smoke while not letting ash at the tip of the cigarette exceed a quarter-inch. He said he was not warned of the hazards of smoking and called the industry “the biggest con of the 20th century”.

He was one of 9,000 tobacco victims in Florida who tried to sue cigarette manufacturers for failing to warn that smoking carried potentially fatal health risks. To dramatise his point, Landers would rip open his shirt to show scars from his operations.

“They created the illusion that smoking was cool, but they knew when I was doing the campaign that it caused lung cancer and that it was the most addictive drug the world has ever known. They knew but they never told me,” he said in an interview weeks before his death.

“They should be held to account for having a defective product and they should be held accountable for killing people.”

In 2006, the Florida Supreme Court threw out a US$145 billion class-action lawsuit launched against tobacco manufacturers by thousands of victims and their families. But the court recommended that each of those claimants bring an individual case instead, finding that cigarette-makers had lied to cover up the dangerous and addictive properties of tobacco and that all each plaintiff had to prove was that they were harmed by an addiction to smoking.

A jury found for the plaintiff last week in the first of the 9,000 Florida cases, brought by the widow of a smoking victim. Damages are expected to run into the tens of millions of dollars. Landers’ case against RJ Reynolds, the maker of Winston cigarettes, was due in court next month.

Weeks before his death, he was on daily doses of radiotherapy and weekly chemotherapy, and struggled to breathe and talk.

“I have only two lobes left in my lungs. I have lung cancer, I have throat cancer, I have emphysema. I’m fighting for my life,” he said at the time. Emphysema is a chronic obstructive pulmonary disease caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.

At the height of the smoking trend, when cigarettes were perceived as fashionable, Landers was in demand for his suave looks.

“Looking back on my career, I am ashamed that I helped promote such a lethal and addictive product … Had I understood then what I now understand – that cigarettes are an addictive poison that kills almost 50 per cent of their users – I would never have participated in their mass marketing.”

Landers was not the first poster boy for the tobacco industry to fall victim to the product he once advertised.

Two of the so-called “Marlboro men”, actors David McLean and Dick Hammer, died of lung cancer, one in 1992 and the other in 1995, years after modelling for Marlboro cigarettes, made by the Philip Morris tobacco company.

Landers tried in vain to kick the habit, using nicotine patches and gum. In 1987, he was diagnosed with cancer in one lung. Five years later, doctors told the actor and model that it had spread to his second lung, requiring radical surgery that involved severing a nerve to his vocal cords.

In 1996, he also underwent open heart surgery and a double bypass operation, necessitated “by the residual effects of smoking”.

Months before his death, he was given the devastating news that he had a tumour on his tonsils.

Before his death he said he was living close to the poverty line; he had to beg for public donations to help pay his medical bills.

“I’ve got financial problems and I need help to fight them. But I’m determined they’re not going to beat me,” he said. “I am unwilling to give the defendants their wish: to postpone the date of my trial so much that I would die first.”

He added: “The industry put profits over people, stonewalled criticism and concealed scientific evidence from the public and its customers … I call upon the tobacco industry to compensate its victims, its former customers, who are suffering and dying from its products.”

Additional reporting by The New York Times

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