Like any parent, I cringe when I see my 5-year-old dangle a carrot stick from her lips, pretending it's a cigarette. It bothers me to see her fascination with silly Joe Camel on the billboards we pass on the way to school.
It's sometimes hard to know what tone to use when young children who otherwise condemn smoking as smelly and sad begin to respond to the allure of an advertising campaign that sends the opposite message: that smokers are wildly adventurous and very fun.But when my 7-year-old son began to wax poetic about the handsome Marlboro Man, I was not at a loss for words.
"I used to know that man," I was able to say.
It was true.
While working as a university science writer several years ago, I was asked to meet a television crew who wanted to interview a cancer patient. The crew was late, but the patient was not. We had plenty of time to talk.
The first thing I noticed about Wayne McLaren --beyond the familiar suntanned face I had seen in magazines and on billboards-- was his footwear. A Colorado native myself, I know beautiful boots when I see them, and my compliment led us into a warm conversation about the mountain country that had been home to us both.
McLaren said he was a working rancher when a series of circumstances linked him up with the advertising agency responsible for shooting the Marlboro man advertisements.
A lifelong smoker, McLaren had no problem with posing next to the weathered wood of a corral, or cradling a Marlboro in his wind-weathered fingers while gazing off at the vast expanse of a Western plain. He later became an actor as well as a model.
It wasn't until years later that the cough began that would prove to be lung cancer-- a grim diagnosis he fought with great determination at the Mayo Clinic, M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston and the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.
When I met him, he was receiving a cutting-edge treatment that combines surgery with precisely directed radiation, in his case to attack lung cancer cells that had migrated to his brain.
McLaren at that point was hopeful but philosophical.
He told me that when he drove to East Los Angeles from his Newport Beach home for his latest cancer treatment, he passed billboards of himself along the freeways. It bothered him, but lawyers made it clear he had no recourse; his image belonged to Philip Morris Inc.
At one point, he took his case to a group of Philip Morris stockholders, beseeching them to limit their advertising.
Occasionally, he said, he went out to talk to kids.
"I tell them that they think it's real cool to smoke, and I thought so too. But what's not cool is retching through chemotherapy, or lying on a cold table while they radiate your brain, or wondering how long you're going to live."
I can't quote McLaren directly, I should say, but the paraphrase seemed to work pretty well with my son.
Especially when I told him that the handsome and rugged man on the billboard-- a real cowboy and a fine man --lost his valiant fight and died in 1992 at the vigorous age of 51.