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Death of a public health champion: Warren Braren

Last week, reported the New York Times, Warren Braren, a critic of the tobacco industry who helped to spark a Congressional ban on tobacco advertising, died at the age of 82. Let’s examine the contributions of this champion of public health.

Richard Kluger, the author of the Pultizer Prize-winning book Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, told the Times, that Mr. Braren “was among a number of unheralded figures who stood up to the tobacco industry at the time it was perhaps the wealthiest and certainly the deadliest practitioner of unregulated American capitalism.”

In Ashes to Ashes, Kluger provides some details. In 1966, Braren, working for the trade association the National Association of Broadcasters, prepared a confidential report on the marketing practices of the tobacco industry. When the NAB rejected his recommendations for tighter oversight of deceptive advertising, he quit in disgust. He continued to file reports on problematic practices with the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement division, whose oversight he called a “charade”. “It was like putting down atrocities on a piece of paper and filing it,” he told Kluger.

In 1969, Braren testified to the House Commerce Committee on deceptive industry practices, testimony that Kluger called “the best single account of the sorry history of the Cigarette Advertising Code and the National Association of Broadcasters” dealing with the tobacco companies in the 1960s. Braren, directly contradicting NAB President Vincent Wasilewski, told the House committee, “In the most candid terms, Congress and the public have been misled as to the real nature of the broadcast self-regulatory program on cigarette commercials.” Braren also told the House Committee that TV cigarette commercials “cannot help but have an intrinsic youth appeal.” In part as a response to this testimony, the NAB brokered a deal with Congress to take cigarette ads off television, regarding such a ban as inevitable and hoping to move its advertising to other media. Braren later became executive director of Consumers Union, where he continued to advocate for tighter regulation of advertising to children.

Advancing public health protection has long depended on the contributions of men and women of conscience like Warren Braren. By putting the well-being of the public and truthful communication above the interests of his employers and the tobacco industry, whistle blowers like Braren—and others in the food, firearms, pharmaceutical and automobile industry– play an important public role in confronting corporate special interests. By recognizing and celebrating their accomplishments in life and in death, we can encourage others to follow in Braren’s path.