David Goerlitz Interview: The Winston Man Talks Tobacco and Vaping
You might not have heard of David Goerlitz before, but if you remember the 1980s it’s pretty certain you also remember the Winston Man. Star of one of the cigarette industry’s most influential advertising campaigns, the Winston Man got to do all the adventurous things most of us can only dream of – and he did it all with a cigarette jutting from his chiseled face. David Goerlitz was the actor behind this marketing sensation until, in a dramatic move, he walked away from the tobacco industry and became an anti-smoking activist.
However, it didn’t take long for Goerlitz to realize that in joining the tobacco control movement he’d jumped from the frying pan into the fire. To his horror he found that the mortal enemies of the tobacco industry were, in fact, closely linked with it. While Goerlitz toured high schools warning children of the dangers of smoking his new allies were sitting down with politicians and tobacco company executives. The deals they made in these meetings should have been about protecting the nation’s health – but, far too often, they were about money.
His experiences have given Goerlitz a unique insight into how influence operates in America today, and he discusses it in the movie A Billion Lives. I was lucky enough to be at ABL’s European premiere in Warsaw, and I was stunned at some of the things he had to say. Then a few days ago I had a chance to talk to him, and it was fascinating. I learned a lot more about what turned him from the public face of tobacco into an advocate for e-cigarettes. Here’s what he had to say.
Me: So what’s your story? How did you come to be interested in vaping?
David Goerlitz: That goes back to 1981, when I was hired by RJ Reynolds to be the model for their new advertising campaign. The idea was to associate smoking with outdoor sports. They had me rock climbing, flying helicopters, all that macho crap.
The problem was this appealed to young people. About 94 percent of smokers start before the age of 17. If they don’t get them then there’s only about a six or seven percent chance of catching them as a full-fledged adult. Sometimes it does happen, maybe when an adult goes through a crisis, but it’s rare. So at the time the tobacco industry was spending $14 billion a year to attract new smokers, and who was that targeted at?
Anyway I was doing this willingly. I was paid lots of money – a hundred grand a year, in 1981. It was good money. And all I had to do was work 26 days a year to get that money. I didn’t have to do a whole lot of anything, other than make tobacco and smoking look good. I did the job well for almost eight years, until I decided I had to quit.
Me: Well, $100,000 a year. Why did you decide to quit? I’m not sure I would have.
DG: Unfortunately my brother, who had been a smoker, was diagnosed with cancer. The cancer started in different parts of his body and it metastasized to other parts. The doctors said that tobacco was the reason for it, you know, the catalyst. And here I am hanging on the billboards. My kids are seeing their old man on the billboards, rappelling and playing GI Joe. And they’re coming home from school, and being children of the new generation, they’re saying “smoking kills.” Their teachers and the Surgeon General are saying if you smoke tobacco you’re going to die, and they’re wondering why I’m still smoking it.
So that was the epiphany for me, along with my brother’s cancer, my wake-up moment.
Me: So you managed to quit smoking?
DG: I did, but with tremendous difficulty. I’d quit, cheat, quit again, cheat again. From being paid to sell tobacco I was now trying to quit it, because although I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do next my children were more important to me. So in late 1988 I managed to quit, on the Great American Smoke-Out. But I did a terrible job, because I didn’t know how to quit. I had the desire, but I didn’t have the wherewithal. So I know what it’s like to struggle.
This was the 1980s, and we didn’t have the patches, the gum, the inhalers. You quit cold turkey or you died; it was that simple. And I struggled. I’d cheat – smoke in the barn, or outside, or in the car. You know, just like I did when I was fourteen. You start smoking as a kid and you hide it. Of course you get caught, but in the 1960s, the 70s, it wasn’t a big deal. Parents smoked, teachers smoked. Nobody took tobacco seriously. Nobody did anything about it, the government didn’t put them out of business. That’s where the corruption started, and I was right in the middle of it.
Me: Hang on, corruption?
DG: Oh yeah. I found myself right in the middle of the discussions between the government and the National Cancer Institute, American Heart Association, American Lung, and all the people that were benefiting from these diseases. I don’t mean benefiting in a positive way; they were just getting money to help those who had diseases caused by tobacco. So that’s when the politics really started to play, in the late 80s and early 90s.
Me: So how did you get involved in all this?
DG: I happened to have quit right around the time when it was all getting going, in late 1988, and I quickly became the golden boy for the anti-tobacco movement. No-one had ever done this. No-one had come out and said the tobacco industry was marketing to kids. But I’d seen this myself when I worked for RJ Reynolds. I noticed that none of the company’s executives smoked, and I asked them about it. They said, “We don’t smoke the shit, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid.” That was some admission, and when I started talking about it that was probably the turning point for the anti-tobacco movement. For the first time they had corroboration from an insider that kids were being targeted, that all that marketing money was being spent to get kids to smoke. That’s what they’d been paying me to do. To make smoking look exciting, to link it with cool stuff.
Me: So the anti-tobacco people were pretty keen on getting your message out there?
DG: Oh sure. Like I said, I became their golden boy and that happened pretty quickly, within a few months. They had me appearing on every media outlet possible. Everybody out there wanted to know my story, and all I was doing was telling the truth. But that’s when the money started coming in.
Me: Money? To the tobacco industry?
DG: No, to the US coffers. California now had the evidence they needed to pass a bill, Proposition 99, that said for every pack of cigarettes sold in California 25 cents would go into a fund to teach kids about cessation, prevention, the evils of tobacco. Now, California has over ten percent of the US population, and there were a lot of smokers back then. So that money came in quickly, and then it started to become free money. It was going to the health department to treat people who’d got ill from smoking, and to education to get the message to kids. Very quickly the rest of the country decided they wanted a piece of this as well, and more taxes appeared. From 1990 to about 1996 or 1997 this is what happened. And all this time I was out there, talking to schools five days a week, 3,000 kids at a time. I’m up on the stage, telling kids my story, and I was pretty popular with the anti-tobacco people.
Me: I get the feeling they’re not so popular with you. What changed?
DG: I started watching the anti-tobacco people sleeping with the enemy. I’m watching American Lung, Tobacco Free Kids and all these other groups having meetings with RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris. And then the Master Settlement Agreement came in and I decided I couldn’t do this anymore.
Me: Because of the MSA?
DG: Because of the MSA. Now nobody could sue the tobacco industry; nobody could ban tobacco. The industry was paying in billions of dollars a year and that money was all going to the states. The states screamed that they needed that money to stop people smoking and to educate kids, but that’s not what they did with it. That money went into general taxation. They basically said forget the children, we’re going to use this for road repair, waterfront restoration, balancing the budget, whatever.” Or they sold bonds…
Me: Yes, I know about the bonds. That’s quite a story.
DG: Yep. The states sold billions of dollars’ worth of bonds. California sold $13 billion. And they spent the money and started using the MSA payments to pay off the bonds. So now they need those payments to keep coming in, and if people stop smoking the money stops coming. Remember that when the states say they want people to quit smoking, okay?
Me: So how did you react to this?
DG: I’d had enough. This was supposed to be about helping people and now it was all about money. They’d lied about what their intent was when they took that money, because they should have put it where it should be to do the most good. I was right in the thick of it and I realized I couldn’t deal with them anymore. I couldn’t even talk to these people. So round about 2006 I told them to go f**k themselves. I probably used those exact words. And then, lo and behold, round about the same time electronic cigarettes started to appear.
Me: And you thought they might be a solution?
DG: Hell no! I thought, “Here we go, out of the frying pan and into the fire.” I thought this was ridiculous, because I didn’t understand it. I was just looking at people who were saying they didn’t smoke anymore because they use electronic cigarettes. But I’m thinking, aren’t they still smoking?
DG: Right! And I found that out because, being who I am, I started to do some research. I was lucky enough to get someone in California to send me twenty or twenty-five electronic cigarettes. So I gave those out to friends, people who were still smoking, to see what happened. And I was still struggling with smoking myself at the time – I’d quit, but I was still cheating sometimes, because I liked to smoke. I enjoyed it.
Me: And how did that turn out?
DG: Well, I gave out about twenty, and fourteen or fifteen or sixteen people quit smoking! It was more than half. They wanted to quit; they were ready, and the electronic cigarettes, even if they were pretty crappy ones, they worked. And I was able to convince people they worked. I was convinced myself; I knew they worked, because they worked for me. And long story short, I fell in love with electronic cigarettes, and I decided to research as much as I could about the vaping thing.
Me: Were you surprised by what you found, and by how the anti-tobacco movement reacted?
DG: No, I wasn’t surprised. I know how corrupt these people are. There’s no transparency with the anti-tobacco people. They’re incredibly corrupt, and that’s why I decided to do the documentary with Aaron Biebert. He doesn’t smoke or vape, and when he first heard about electronic cigarettes he reacted the same way I did. Then he learned more. He found that tobacco control and big pharma are in bed together. They plan all this, and there’s no transparency. It’s so corrupt that he decided to expose it all, and that’s where A Billion Lives came from.
Me: I’ve seen the movie and I’m really glad you decided to take part. I’m hearing the same from a lot of other people who saw it – your experience added a lot of pieces to the jigsaw. What do you think comes next?
DG: That’s the hard part. I think, in a lot of ways, the vaping community has lost its way. Maybe it’s got too big, too fast. Everybody’s thinking about the latest gear, the next generation of gear, and it’s becoming a subculture. That’s pretty off-putting for the ordinary smoker who just wants an alternative to cigarettes. You walk into a vape shop and it’s really obvious that it’s a different culture. I don’t have any problems with that, but how does it look if you’re not familiar with it? There are a few million vapers in the USA now, but there’s also over forty million people who’re still smoking. They’re not looking for a new hobby, or a new culture to join. They just want an alternative to cigarettes. We have that alterative, and we need to fight to make sure it isn’t taken away.