In letters to the editor the past few weeks and in personal messages to me, readers have blasted our decision to accept tobacco advertising — those Lucky Strike ads you've been seeing. We have been accused of either completely losing our moral integrity or being financially desperate and on the brink of bankruptcy. I assure you, neither is the case.
There has been a change in policy but it didn't just occur this past month or even this past year. (We've carried ads from John's Fine Cigars since 2014.) Still, readers deserve an explanation of how our tobacco advertising policy change came about or, more precisely, how it evolved.
In the early and mid-1990s, the Journal was a monthly news magazine owned, run and staffed by me and my business partner Carolyn Fernandez (now retired). We had some freelance writers and a few part-timers in those days. For eight years we struggled to keep afloat for another month. During those times, others like us, alternative newspapers that published weekly or monthly, thrived on classified ads and tobacco advertisers. When the tobacco guys came knocking, I said no. It was personal for me and there was no one to consult except Carolyn. My brother Mickey, who diagnosed himself as bipolar after one psych class in college, was pretty fond of all things addictive. I don't know if he ever tried heroin or other opioids — he never said — but pretty much everything else: cocaine, alcohol, tobacco, pot and lots of other stuff that came in bizarre pill forms. The only one he could never quit when he tried was tobacco. This is true for many people addicted, some claiming it's harder to quit than heroin. He died of his third heart attack at 52.
Over those years, the Journal kept growing, albeit more slowly than we perhaps could have. We incorporated and started publishing every week. We added staff writers, production workers and sales staff. I finally stepped aside as editor to focus on growing the company. By the time our staff grew to more than 20 full-timers, we hired a general manager and had regular meetings with department heads that guided our policies and growth. It was there some years ago that the issue of tobacco ads came up again. Of course, a private company is not a democracy and business owners always have final word. But I listened to my staffers who questioned whether my rationale was out of date, given the number of legal and illegal substances that could be used and abused. One previous editor questioned my hypocrisy, since my immediate family has owned and operated the Fieldbrook Winery since 1976. Should we refuse ads based on some level of evil addictiveness? What about the damage to society being done by the obesity epidemic? Ban soda cans in grocery ads?
In establishing any company policy, or in this case changing one, there is also another important touchstone — our mission statement. For this document, I thank my good friend and founder of Cypress Grove Cheese Mary Keehn. Also in the mid-1990s, Mary brought a small business-consulting firm to Humboldt and we all chipped in $100 for a session at Merryman's Beach House. Most of those in attendance that day were as ignorant and uninformed as I was, but we all left with more than our money's worth. I returned to the office and wrote a real mission statement and guiding principles for the Journal that reflect our values and commitment to our employees, our advertisers and to the community. That document stands to this day and I've used it many times over the years when making decisions.
We finally settled on a policy to approve, and not judge, ads for legal products carried by local advertisers. Like it or not, tobacco is legal and regulated, like alcohol. If we don't like something personally or if we want to join others to work toward sweeping societal changes for better health, we can always try to change laws.
Unfortunately, you'll need more than luck changing any law that governs something so heinously addictive. Like sugar.
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