Creating Cigarette Advertising

Q. My advertising firm just won a lucrative contract with a cigarette company. Is it unethical according to Judaism to create an advertising campaign for a cigarette company? — P. Wolfson, Toronto

A. Judaism considers protection of health and life a supreme value. The Torah commands us “Be very careful of your souls” (Deut. 4:15), meaning your well-being. And this duty of care extends to our fellow human being as well. The commandment “Don’t place a stumbling-block before the blind” figuratively means that we should never encourage others to do something against their interests. (Lev. 19:14)

But that doesn’t mean you have to become a crusader for every new health fad that appears in the papers. Jewish tradition’s unique approach doesn’t view danger as something which can be measured statistically; perceptions and attitudes are just as important (Shabbat 129b). Attitudes towards danger embody a kind of folk wisdom which can be more stable than ever-changing scientific views. And respecting them is an important way of showing reverence for life.

In the case of smoking, scientific research and popular attitudes concur that it is a danger, so ads encouraging people to start smoking are certainly problematic.

Encouraging current smokers to use a particular brand may be different. Since smoking is so addictive, advertising doesn’t necessarily affect the amount they smoke. There is no unambiguous answer if the aim of the ad campaign is only to create brand identity among current users.

Your attitude is also important here. Encouraging something that you personally think is ethically wrong is bound to compromise your integrity. Ask yourself how strongly you feel about this issue and adopt a policy consistent with your views.

While you didn’t ask, it is important to point out that lewd or immodest ads are inappropriate no matter what is being advertised.