Eric Lawson, the actor who portrayed the “Marlboro Man” in the iconic 1970s cigarette ads, has passed away at the age of 72. He died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — a disease that makes it progressively more difficult to breathe over time — which is primarily caused by cigarette smoking.
Lawson portrayed the ruggedly handsome cowboy in Marlboro’s print ads in between 1978 and 1981. The Marlboro Man, which ultimately helped equate smoking with masculinity, was an extremely successful advertising icon that helped establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette brand in the world. The company’s print ads helped maintain its hold on the market even after cigarette ads were banned from TV in 1971.
Lawson became a smoker at just 14 years old, according to his wife Susan. Later in life, he appeared in an anti-smoking ad and discussed the negative health effects on smoking on “Entertainment Tonight.” But he was never able to quit. “He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him. He knew, yet he still couldn’t stop,” Susan Lawson told the Associated Press.
Several other actors who portrayed the Marlboro Man have also died of smoking-related illnesses. David McLean died of emphysema in 1995, and Wayne McLaren died of lung cancer in 1992. McLaren become an outspoken anti-smoking advocate in the years before his death, and according to his mother, some of his last words were, “Take care of the children. Tobacco will kill you, and I am living proof of it.”
Earlier this month, the United States marked the 50th anniversary of the surgeon general’s landmark report that tied tobacco to lung cancer for the first time. Since then, smoking has killed more than 20 million Americans, and government officials continue to add more health issues to the list of consequences from tobacco. Fortunately, smoking rates continue to drop, and public health officials are optimistic about the number of lives that can be saved from effective anti-tobacco programs.
Philip Morris, the largest tobacco company in the world and the maker of Marlboro cigarettes, recently decided to enter the e-cigarette industry. Some e-cig makers continue to capitalize on the Marlboro Man’s imagery in their own advertising campaigns.