Louis Gerstner’s Double Standards

From Coaxing Smokers to Nurturing Students

By Derrick Jackson

At the recent national education summit, its co-chairman, IBM chief executive Louis Gerstner, said:

  • “It’s time to stop making excuses. It’s time to set standards and achieve them.”
  • “There must be accountability. …We must … be prepared to apply consequences to those who do and don’t meet them.”
  • “We need educated people for consumers. We need them to be thoughtful.”
  • “What is killing us is having to teach them to read … compute … communicate … think.”

Such words, coming from Gerstner’s lips, should have evoked a national belly laugh.

Today Gerstner is the self-proclaimed pope of education. Yesterday his job was to keep America dumb.

Today he wants to teach kids to read and think. Yesterday his job depended on brainwashing young adults to buy an addictive product that kills them.

Today Gerstner is a chief executive of a computer company. Yesterday he was a chief executive of a cigarette company.

From 1989 to 1993, Gerstner ran RJR Nabisco. RJR Nabisco also sells cookies, but in 1992 cigarettes accounted for 57% of its $15.7 billion in revenues.

Under Gerstner, RJR held onto 29% of the US cigarette market and greatly expanded its presence abroad. RJR has invested $200 million in cigarette plants in Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America, where male smoking rates are as high as 70%.

Most important, given Gerstner’s pontifications, is Joe Camel. In 1987 RJR unleashed its Joe Camel advertising campaign, with a cartoon camel in adventure roles. By the middle of Gerstner’s reign, Camel had become the most highly identified cigarette among children.

In 1993, the Journal of the American Medical Association published several studies on the effects of the campaign. The studies found that 90% of teenagers, 90% of 6-year-olds and 30% of 3-yearolds linked Joe Camel with cigarettes. Camel zoomed from less than 1% of the illegal teen cigarette market to 32.8%. The increase gave RJR an estimated $476 million in sales.

Of course, Gerstner would take no official credit for that. Tobacco companies claim they do not advertise to children, despite the obvious logic that if you are going to remain profitable as a cigarette maker, you must find new bodies to replace the 434,000 in the United States and the 2.7 million worldwide who die each year from smoking-related diseases.

Three thousand U.S. teenagers a day become new smokers. Four out of five adults who have ever smoked had their first cigarette before the age of 18. While the adult rate is way down from 40% 35 years ago, it shows no sign of going beyond 25%. There are some signs of a small increase.

Cigarette makers have stabilized smoking rates by preying on the least educated people. In the United States, 42% and 32%, respectively, of male and female dropouts smoke. In low-income nations, the numbers of people who will die each year from smoking is expected to explode tenfold by the year 2025.

During his reign, Gerstner and RJR ran away from accountability. They made every kind of excuse why cigarette makers should not be held liable for the consequences of cigarettes. When those public relations efforts failed, they either bought silence through charitable donations or through armies of lawyers.

All this to keep Americans uneducated about the fact that smoking is the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the U.S., accounting for more fatalities than car crashes, accidents, homicide, suicide and AIDS combined.

One thing you can say about Gerstner’s reign at RJR. He knew how to reach youth. This is not, however, what parents had in mind.

Before Gerstner dons the robe of national know-it-all, an educated America would first make him apologize for all the children who will die prematurely because they started smoking on his watch.

Until Gerstner acknowledges his role in the fatal dumbing-down of youth, the only education we can be sure he is talking about is one that delivers profits — at any cost.

The last thing he wanted at RJR was a thoughtful, educated child. He wanted consumers so addicted to nicotine and glamour that they would never read the warning label on the box.

Derrick Jackson is a columnist for The Boston Globe.

Reprinted courtesy of The Boston Globe.