In the late 1980s, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company made plans to market a new brand of menthol cigarette, Uptown. The cigarette was to be market-tested among Black people in Philadelphia.

The packaging was black and gold, and the cigarettes were packed with the filters down, because research showed Black smokers tended to open cigarette packs from the bottom.

Advertising depicted Black models. They were smiling, carefree, enjoying the city’s nightlife. The slogan read: “Uptown. The Place. The Taste.” These advertisements were to be plastered on billboards, public transit, bus stops, and in Black newspapers and magazines. The cigarette was timed to roll out in February 1990, during Black History Month.

Louis Sullivan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the time, was outraged.

“I felt so strongly, I said that if I have any credibility as secretary, I have to really do everything I can to protect and promote the health of Americans,” Sullivan said in a recent interview with The Cancer Letter. “This is a blatant effort that really goes in the opposite direction.”

Sullivan was not alone. Thirty-five activist groups formed the Coalition Against Uptown Cigarettes, which included the Conference of Black Clergy, the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, the Delaware Valley Hospital Council, and Black United Methodist Preachers.

For decades, tobacco companies have funded key Black organizations, and the industry’s lobby used these relationships to argue against any limitations being placed on the marketing of menthol-containing tobacco products.

This fight appears to be occurring again, as several influential Black organizations are apparently lobbying the White House to hold off on the implementation of the menthol ban originally proposed as part of the Biden Cancer Moonshot Program. A related story is available in The Cancer Letter.

Also in this issue, a guest editorial by Black oncology leaders, including all Black directors of NCI-designated cancer centers, urges the Biden administration to finalize the FDA rule that would take menthol off the market. The editorial is available in The Cancer Letter.

Sullivan is founding dean and director of the Medical Education Program at Morehouse College. In 1981, the four-year Morehouse School of Medicine was established with Sullivan as dean and president. He served as HHS secretary from 1989-1993. His autobiography, “Breaking Ground: My Life in Medicine,” with David Chanoff, won the NAACP Image Award for Literature in 2015.

Sullivan spoke with Alan Blum, director and exhibitions curator at University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society. Blum is the guest editor of the Cancer History Project during the month of January to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health.

This interview is available as a podcast above.

An opportunity to go public presented itself in January 1990. Sullivan was scheduled to give a commencement speech at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He decided to use this platform to condemn R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for targeting African Americans.

Usually, Sullivan would send any public remarks over to the White House for approval a few days in advance. This time, he gave the White House two hours to review his speech.

“I knew very well that by the time the White House knew that the speech was there, I would be on my way back to Washington from Philadelphia,” Sullivan said. “But I also knew that what was going to happen was unpredictable, because I was going to be violating protocol.”

During his talk Jan. 18, 1990, Sullivan criticized the cigarette brand:

“This brand is cynically and deliberately targeted toward black Americans,” Sullivan said in his address. “At a time when our people desperately need the message of health promotion, Uptown’s message is more disease, more suffering, and more death for a group already bearing more than its share of smoking-related illness and mortality.”

I felt so strongly, I said that if I have any credibility as secretary, I have to really do everything I can to protect and promote the health of Americans.

Louis Sullivan

“At a time when we must cultivate greater personal responsibility among our citizens,” he continued, “Uptown’s slick and sinister advertising proposes instead a greater degree of personal irresponsibility.”

He called for R.J. Reynolds to pull the cigarettes from the market, according to reporting from the Washington Post.

“I strongly urge you to cancel your plans to market a brand of cigarettes that is specifically targeted to Black smokers,” Sullivan said.

Before giving the speech, Sullivan decided it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than permission from the White House, he recalled recently.

“I didn’t want to be put in the position of being told, asked by the chief of staff, or the president, not to give that speech,” he said.

Tobacco lobbyists were livid.

“Lobbyists for the tobacco industry called the White House,” Sullivan said. “They were enraged by the speech I made.”

Sullivan never received any sort of reprimand. He recalls speaking with President George H.W. Bush before a cabinet meeting in the weeks after.

“Before the meeting began, President Bush said, ‘Lou, we’re noticing you speaking about tobacco and we’re behind you. We’re maybe a little bit too far behind you, but we’re behind you,’” he said. “That was it.

“In essence, the president was telling me ‘You did OK,’” Sullivan said. “That was as close as he was going to get, because we knew the tobacco industry worked to have people sympathetic to their industry working as White House staff to really try and avoid things such as the speech that I gave in Philadelphia.”

R.J. Reynolds scrapped its plans to market the cigarette in January 1990.

Blum spoke with Sullivan for the Cancer History Project podcast. The transcript of their conversation follows.


Alan Blum: I’m honored to be interviewing Dr. Louis Sullivan, who was the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the George H.W. Bush administration from 1989 to 1993. But more than that, Dr. Sullivan is simply a wonderful person.

I’m Dr. Alan Blum. I was asked by The Cancer Letter’s Alexandria Carolan, who edits the Cancer History Project, if I might interview Dr. Sullivan for a podcast that marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health by Dr. Luther Terry, who was from Alabama.

The Alabama connection is significant, I think, not just because I’m conducting this interview from the University of Alabama Center for the Study of Tobacco and Society in Tuscaloosa, but also because Alabama was the only state that had two individuals responsible for the Report, the other being Dr. Mickey LeMaistre, who was a member of the 10-person advisory committee to the Surgeon General. Dr. LeMaistre, a native of Tuscaloosa, was a Distinguished Alumnus of the University of Alabama.

I wanted to first explore your own thoughts about this anniversary, since you played perhaps one of the most significant roles in furthering this issue, along with, of course, surgeons general Dr. Terry, Dr. Everett Koop, Dr. Julius Richmond, and Secretary of Health Education and Welfare Joe Califano—I think those are the names that one thinks of in the government who took those risks [in calling for more action against smoking and said, “This is so important, we’ve got to stand up for this issue.”

Louis W. Sullivan: Right. It was very important, and I certainly was quite impressed by that report when it came out because my own personal circumstances were as follows: I grew up in Southwest Georgia, having been born here in Atlanta, and my father actually was a funeral director, but he had a little confectionery, and I would frequently be minding the store.

And I remember back in those years, back in the forties and fifties, many advertisements were out, such as: “More Doctors Smoke Camels” or “20,679 Physicians Say Lucky Strikes are Less Irritating.”.

So, those cigarettes at that time were being promoted as really desirable objects that were being used by doctors. When the Surgeon General’s Report came out in 1964, pointing out that the individuals who smoked had a higher incidence of illness and death from lung cancer, that was very striking.

That is something that stayed with me the whole time because I had graduated from medical school in 1958, and so I was very much into health issues. And the Surgeon General’s Report, I thought, was very important. It got a lot of attention and really turned the whole picture around showing that this was not a harmless hobby, but rather a very danger to one’s health and longevity.

AB: It is very interesting—I just realized you were an eyewitness to the release of the report. I was a high school senior and I wrote my first editorial on smoking in 1964. My father handed me a copy of the Journal of the American Medical Association with an editorial called “Childish Habit,” and I used the same title, but I adapted it for my own newspaper.

You were already a physician when the report came out, having graduated from Boston University School of Medicine after having been a magna cum laude graduate at Morehouse. You epitomized the values and the greatness of Morehouse, and I want to come back to that in just a minute. But what an incredible bio you have.

We all think of you as Secretary of Health, but I hadn’t realized the depth of what you had done prior to that. And you founded a medical school! I was at Emory when Morehouse was just in its infancy. I graduated in ‘75 and I watched the growth. My uncle Marvin Goldstein, and another uncle Irving Goldstein, were contributors in Atlanta to various organizations. One was the Ben Massell Dental Clinic, and they were very, very interested in Morehouse.

It’s just fantastic to see how that college, which is now separate from the university, has become one of the foremost medical schools, not just for minority physicians, but for the healthcare of Atlanta.

LS: Well, I knew Dr. Marvin Goldstein and he was very generous as one of our financial supporters, as well as someone who gave us a lot of encouragement for the medical school. That’s very interesting. That really was a very exciting time, very challenging. But we had a lot of supporters like Dr. Goldstein and others who worked with us.

AB: When I first gave a talk at Morehouse on smoking around 20 years ago, it was absolutely a great moment to walk into that building. Also because the road that you take from Tuscaloosa to Morehouse goes past the Hamilton Holmes Parkway, I think of him. When I was a medical student, he was my orthopedic upper level, and I did not know anything about him. I just thought he was this incredible teacher.

Only after I did my two weeks under his tutelage did people say, “You had Hamilton Holmes? Oh my gosh!” And they explained his significance as having been a pioneer at the University of Georgia who withstood all the abuse as the first African American student to integrate that university.

A lot of crosscurrents here, but I think that as a witness to the publication of this report, as I also was, I wonder if you could comment on whether there was any scuttlebutt about this report? Did you sense that physicians were taking this issue seriously and going to do more? Because my father did, but he had had a heart attack in his forties, and that’s what got him angry about smoking. He smoked two packs a day of Chesterfields that he’d started in medical school.

In your experience in Boston, where you were a fellow in hematology, and in New York (where you had been a resident in internal medicine), was this an issue that people cared about?

LS: Well, it did become quite an issue. Doctors did talk about it quite a bit because the image that the tobacco industry had promoted prior to that time was that this was a very sophisticated hobby, that it showed one’s level of acceptance socially.

They really painted a picture that people who were indeed at the top of the social ladder frequently were smokers. This really did cause quite a bit of commentary. And I remember for example, when I started at Cornell, I applied for the internship there. There had never been a graduate of Boston University in the training program there, and they had never had an African-American intern there.

When I went there for an interview, after the first interview I was asked to meet the chairman of the department. And I was quite pleasantly surprised because I hadn’t anticipated that I would be accepted.

When I went in–and I didn’t even know who the chairman of medicine was–but when they showed me into his office about an hour after my first interview, it turns out there was a haze of smoke that came into the waiting room when they opened the door into the chairman’s office. He was a cardiologist.

His name was Hugh Luckey. And of course, this was a new experience. I was very surprised at the haze of smoke that came out. I know this was something that I and the other interns talked about because we were really quite impressed by that. [Interviewer’s note: Dr. Luckey died at age 69 from lung cancer in 1989.]

When the report came out a few years later, this reinforced it. It really was the report that got a lot of attention. It was talked about quite a bit. It promoted a lot of research that built upon the report showing, of course, cancer in other organs, pulmonary fibrosis, etc. It really was, for me at that time—it was a change agent and stimulated a lot of work.

AB: When you were in New York, by any chance, across the street from Cornell at Sloan Kettering, did you ever run into one of the only individuals in that era who was actively speaking out on smoking, William Cahan, the chest surgeon?

LS: I don’t recall meeting him.

AB: I knew Bill very well in the 1980s and 1990s, and he just was terrific. Even at Sloan Kettering—Ernst Wynder was doing work on, well, trying to develop a safer cigarette, but really there were very few we would even call activists in that era.

But I know, too, that the American Medical Association was a big disappointment. They accepted initially $5 million and then a total of $18 million between ‘64 and ‘78, to continue to study the issue. They were the only health organization that did not endorse the report. It’s just—it’s mind boggling.

LS: Right. Well, I can share with you that in 1975, I came back to Atlanta to develop the Morehouse School of Medicine, and one of the people we recruited for our board of trustees for the medical school was in the advertising business. And he promised that he would get us support for the school from the tobacco industry. And I remember telling him, “Oh no, don’t do that. We are not interested. We don’t want that.” I know that in 1975, 11 years after the Surgeon General’s Report, the reaction toward tobacco use was sufficient at that time, that I felt that it would be very inappropriate for a medical school training doctors to be getting support from the tobacco industry.

We never got that support, because although my trustees really didn’t at the time see the harm from that, I said, No, that we would not have any scientific integrity if we were to accept tobacco funding.

And we wanted to be sure that our graduates not only had a good knowledge base, but also had a strong sense of ethics, character, and interest in their patients, so that they would be working to encourage their patients to adopt healthy lifestyles. That was another measure of the impact of the Surgeon General’s Report some 11 years later as we were starting the new medical school.

AB: You may have been more alone than you think. Because I can think of very few medical schools or even hospitals that were still not accepting or had no policy against accepting such money.

For instance, MD Anderson Cancer Institute in Houston did not even divest its tobacco stocks until the late 1990s. They did not even go smoke-free until the 1990s. It’s astounding. And I think all of the major medical schools in New York City still had researchers who were taking funds from what was called the Council for Tobacco Research.

And one of my gripes is that the advisory committee that wrote the Surgeon General’s report had 7,000 papers to look through. And by 1985, Dr. Koop said, “well, now we have 50,000 papers. I don’t think we need to show more proof.” But the industry kept saying “We need more research.”

When I wrote an invited commentary in The Lancet two years ago called “Tobacco control: All research, no action,” I counted via a Google cholar search, that there are now over 356,000 papers on tobacco.

I think at some point the research gambit should have played itself out when it came to taking action on tobacco. Dr. Cahan had a very fierce debate, which we have on our website for the center—with John Brademas, who had been a congressman before becoming the head of New York University, over the naming of the biggest hospital at NYU Tisch Hospital, after the Tisch family, who owned Lorillard Tobacco Company.

We have Bowman Gray, which was named after an executive of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. We have Duke, founded by the Duke tobacco fortune, and, believe it or not, as late as 2018, Meharry Medical College took funding from Juul, the electronic cigarette manufacturer, to do more research. I think you were not only ahead of the crowd. I think you may have been literally alone, especially as a new medical school, in turning down that largesse.

LS: Well, one of the other things that happened in retrospect, thinking about this in the early years, I was visited by a psychiatrist friend from New York. While he visited me, he gave me a supply of lapel pins with the logo saying, “tobacco smoking is inhibited.” I wore that all the time.

And as it turns out, when I was nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, I visited members of the Senate committee that would be involved in confirming my appointment as secretary. One of those people was Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

When I visited him—first of all, all of the visits that I made, which were monitored and helped by Alan Simpson, a senator from Wyoming, he was the majority whip at the time. Well, when I visited Senator Helms, he noted my lapel pin. And of course, he made it very clear that he objected to that.

And even in 1989, he was making statements such as, “There’s really no real proof that tobacco really causes cancer. And what is it about you that makes you think that you really have the qualifications to be secretary?”

And with the discussion we had, I indicated to him that if I were confirmed as secretary, among the things I would be doing would be urging people to improve their lifestyles. And one of the main things that I would be urging them to do to improve their lifestyles was to stop smoking, because of a large number of deaths and the injuries and illness caused by tobacco.

And of course, with tobacco being a major crop from North Carolina, he disagreed with that. When I left his office, I knew that I did not have his vote. And sure enough, my confirmation vote was 98 to one. That one vote was Jesse Helms.

AB: You should be very proud.

LS: Oh, yes. I said to my friends in Atlanta, had I gotten the vote from Jesse Helms, I would’ve had a lot of explaining to do as to why he was supporting me.

So at any rate, that was the one experience. It really shows that it wasn’t that long ago that the tobacco industry marshaled a lot of support, and they still have that lingering support. And unfortunately, too many organizations accept funds from the tobacco industry.

You’ve mentioned the support that Meharry has received. When that happened, I had quiet conversations with my colleagues at Meharry urging that they send the money back, because I explained to them that the tobacco industry would use that connection to try and give some legitimacy to their arguments that tobacco was not as harmful as it really is.

It has been a major challenge over the years, and it shows how difficult it can be to change people’s behavior. We see it in other areas, such as the vaccine hesitancy, which we have now among our population.

AB: The title of the exhibition that I’m completing with my colleague Bryce Callahan, the “Lost Legacy of the Surgeon General’s Report,” includes a quote, “The most addictive thing about tobacco is the money.”

This was said by my colleague, Dr. Ed Anselm, an internist and a managed care executive in New York City. We’ve worked together for 40 years. And he was struck not just by the dependence of the tobacco industry on money, but by the dependence of the health community on, “I have a grant, therefore I exist.”

They really would rather study the issue than act on it. But you did more than that, and I appreciate your sharing observations about both Jesse Helms and about Meharry. There was a congressman at the time, you may remember, Thomas J. Bliley Jr. from Virginia, and they used to call him the Congressman from Philip Morris.

People don’t realize the extent of the power of the industry. I was fired as editor of the New York State Journal of Medicine, after three years during which I’d produced two theme issues on the tobacco pandemic, the first that had been published by any journal, and I know that the lobbyists for the tobacco industry in Albany were pretty close with the lobby for the medical society.

I don’t think that that was proven that they actually had anything to do with my firing. But I do feel that it was a sad day when I walked in and was told to get out after the medical society had commended me on my bringing this to the public’s attention.

I was told, when I got a new job at Baylor College of Medicine, that maybe I ought to get into something more socially acceptable in my research… like cocaine. I mean, that was actually a quote from a dean because they were so afraid that my activism would offend the tobacco industry which had influence on Capitol Hill.

But the other interesting moment was when I led my group of activists to protest the Marlboro Country Music Festival in Houston, we pulled up in our vehicles to the outside of this event, and we saw other picketers going around, and we said, “Hey, wait a minute. We were supposed to picket. What are you doing?” It was the Act Up people protesting against Jesse Helms [for his homophobia]. So we talked and we agreed that we were going to join each other’s picket line to protest the Marlboro Country Music Festival in Houston.

It’s interesting that you picked up on something that made national attention, that you were outspoken. I don’t know whether you did this with the approval of the administration, but you were especially upset about the introduction of a brand called Uptown, clearly aimed at minority populations.

It was test-marketed in Philadelphia, and Reverend Jesse Brown had led this cry against, “Why do you keep targeting us? You’re putting up billboards in our neighborhoods. You don’t go out to the suburbs and do that.” You joined that call against R.J. Reynolds, and you took it upon yourself to call for an end to tobacco sponsorship of sports. How about a little background to that?

LS: Yes. Well, that happened in 1990. I had a trip to the Middle East– a week in Egypt, and a week in Israel. The official reason for that trip was to review research that the U.S. was supporting in those two countries on such things as mosquito control and malaria.

But underneath this work that we were reviewing was really the effort to get these countries to work together. This was a mechanism that we were using. On the way back from the Middle East, and my wife was with me, we stopped in Rome and visited the Vatican, and then as we came from Rome back to the U.S., a copy of the International Herald Tribune on the plane had an article about the community in Philadelphia objecting to R.J. Reynolds’ plans to introduce this new cigarette in the community called “Uptown.”

That was the first I had heard about it. So, I read the article and it so happened that one week later, I was scheduled to be in Philadelphia speaking at the University of Pennsylvania for the dedication of a new research building that had been built, in part, with grant funds from NIH.

I told my wife, “When I go up there, I’m going to really pull out all the stops.”

I was outraged. The next morning at my 8 a.m. meeting with my senior staff, I came in and put this newspaper on the table in front of me and asked, “Does anyone know anything about this?”

Everyone in the room started smiling and then said, “What’s so funny?” Well, what was funny was they had been busy talking to each other while I was away, figuring out how they could convince me to really speak out against that plan.

The procedure that we followed in making public talks would be to send over to the White House, several days before the event, a copy of the speech so that we’d see that the Secretary of Education was speaking about things that really didn’t conflict with what the Secretary of Health or Secretary of Labor would be saying.

And so I understood that, because we wanted to be sure that the administration was very clear in what our positions were, etc. But I told my staff now, “Next Wednesday, I will speak in Philadelphia.” I sent my speech over at 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, and I was speaking at 10 a.m.

I knew very well that by the time the White House knew that the speech was there, I would be on my way back to Washington from Philadelphia. But I also knew that what was going to happen was unpredictable, because I was going to be violating protocol, but I had decided that it would be much easier for me to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

I didn’t want to be put in the position of being told, asked by the chief of staff, or the president, not to give that speech. I knew that by the end of the day on Wednesday, I might possibly be on a plane back to Atlanta.

I felt so strongly, I said that if I have any credibility as secretary, I have to really do everything I can to protect and promote the health of Americans. This is a blatant effort that really goes in the opposite direction. Well, to make a long story short, nothing happened.

I never got a call from the White House. I did learn later that the lobbyists for the tobacco industry called the White House. They were enraged by the speech I made. John Sununu, chief of staff, told the lobbyist, “I’ll speak with the president as you want me to do, but I can’t guarantee you what the outcome will be.”

He spoke to the president, and the only thing I ever heard was about 10 days later at a cabinet meeting before the meeting began, President Bush said, “Lou, we’re noticing you speaking about tobacco and we’re behind you. We’re maybe a little bit too far behind you, but we’re behind you.”

That was it, because I felt that, to be honest with the American public, my position would be to promote those activities that would lead to health and behavior and protect the health of Americans, etc. That speech was 18 minutes that day. There were three minutes devoted to my condemning R.J. Reynolds for their plans to introduce Uptown. The other 15 minutes was about the benefits to our society of having this research facility, adding to the capability of that research center, and developing new knowledge. That was it.

I never received a reprimand or anything like that. It was a casual comment, which in essence, the president was telling me “You did OK.” That was as close as he was going to get, because we knew the tobacco industry tried to have people sympathetic to their industry working as White House staff to really try and avoid things, such as the speech that I gave in Philadelphia.

AB: That’s terrific context. It just reminded me that Karl Rove, the Republican strategist of that era, was an executive of Philip Morris. When he was not in Washington, he’d go back to Philip Morris and then he’d come back to D.C. to get some government role.

That gave you a sense of the revolving door between the tobacco industry and the federal government. And this is under both political parties, by the way. It’s not unique to Republicans.

You also reminded me, contemporaneous with your remarkable effort, because it really brought the attention not only to Jesse Brown’s work, but to say, “We’re not going to take this anymore.”

I think it really startled not just the tobacco industry, but also individuals like Benjamin Hooks , because one of the recordings I have—I think maybe the best item on our whole website—is, sad to say, an audiotape that was sent to me that someone had made at an NAACP meeting, where Benjamin Hooks, the longtime executive director, introduced the organization’s prestigious Spingarn Award dinner with this glowing praise for Philip Morris and George Knox, who was vice president for minority affairs for Philip Morris.

And he actually challenged the world and said, “People ask me, ‘Why do we take money from Philip Morris?’ We’re proud to take that money, and why don’t they go to TIME Magazine, or all those other organizations and ask,’ Why don’t they stop taking them? Why do they always pick on us, the minorities?” Which I thought was a very good point.

But nonetheless, I think it shook up a lot of people at the National Urban League, at the NAACP, La Raza, the United Negro College Fund, and other minority organizations that had been openly taking tobacco industry money.

And then you also, I sent to your wonderful communications director, Gayle Converse, the headline from the Atlanta Journal of you holding up, actually it was one of our T-shirts, that says “Throw tobacco out of sports,” and calling for the industry to get out of sports and sports bodies to reject their funding.

That really opened the floodgates. I think along with Congressman Henry Waxman, you were the most outspoken on tobacco sponsorship of sports.

LS: Well, I wanted to do everything I could to bring attention of the American public to the adverse effects of tobacco on health, knowing that the percentage of deaths and illness on a per capita basis was higher in the African American community.

I wanted to do everything I could using the Office of the Secretary to get that message to the public. And there were leaders in the Black community with whom I worked. One of them was the late Reverend Calvin Butts, who was minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York.

During the time I was secretary, he would lead groups in Harlem that would plaster over, or whitewash these advertising signs on walls in the Black community and urge the corner stores to take out the ads that were in the windows of their shops, because he was trying to improve the health of the community as well.

This happened before the Uptown incident. When he was doing this, an article appeared in The New York Times. I called him, and I knew him, because Calvin Butts was also a graduate of Morehouse College, so I had met him at college events.

I called him and said, “Calvin, you didn’t get this call, but I just want you to know you’re doing a great job.” There was a lot of support from him and other people like him. This has divided the minority community because there are those in the community who are concerned and who are trying to decrease tobacco use. But unfortunately, it’s still too many organizations and people who are accepting money.

And to me, that’s really undermining the efforts. And by the way, the result of that Uptown speech that I gave was that two weeks later, I received a letter from the president of R.J. Reynolds informing me that they were not proceeding with the introduction of this new cigarette. That was the end of Uptown. I felt very good about that.

AB: I think it was an important thing. I’ve talked to Jesse Brown and I’ve said, it was really a miraculous effort. It was well-supported by a lot of people. Of course, Reynolds then came back and introduced another brand, which they called “Salem Box,” with almost the same kind —different colors. By the way, we created a brand to spoof Uptown. We called it “Upchuck.” I’ll have to send you the pack that we designed with our artist.

But I think ridicule is another approach, and that’s what we’ve done through the years of making fun. We called it the Emphysema Slims Tennis Tournament instead of Virginia Slims. But then I think that the issue is that the response of the tobacco companies, particularly the head of Philip Morris at the time, George Weissman, was that people like you and me were kooks. They actually called us kooks and fanatics, and Weissman actually said, “We don’t target minorities, we target everyone.”

He literally said, “We target everyone.” And I think in a way, whether that’s a Freudian slip, but he said, “No, we don’t discriminate. We go after all we can who are adults. We want them to smoke our products.”

It’s an interesting issue. But going on to sports, did you meet with any opposition?

Clearly, you must have gotten pushback from NASCAR, and the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tour, and other sports where the title sponsor, Winston Cup Racing or Marlboro Cup, was the actual tobacco company.

LS: Yes, this would be in the form of comments ridiculing these efforts, and first of all, trying to question the science, question the basis for this, but also questioning the fact that we were trying to make the point that we were stepping on the rights of Americans to make their own choice, because they would always say, “We are not asking teenagers to smoke. We think smoking is an adult choice. That’s the market that we shoot for.”

When so much data shows the kinds of things they put in their ads would be attractive to teenagers, etc. And it so happens that a high school classmate of mine ended up working for Philip Morris, and he ended up working in the White House.

AB: You’re not talking about Stanley S. Scott, are you?

LS: Stanley Scott—Yes.

AB: Yes. He was an amazing individual.

LS: He was from a prominent family here in Atlanta.

He volunteered to get funding for us as well. And I told him, “Stan, no, we really are not interested. We don’t want that. We want funds, but we want funds that are really not impaired by big profits from the deaths, or the illness of people.” So unfortunately, as you know, Stan developed lung cancer and died from it.

AB: I have to tell you a little story because in 1986, after I’d been fired by the New York State Journal of Medicine [soon after published a second theme issue on smoking] and was pretty much floundering looking for another position, I got a call from The Washington Post asking if I would write about the targeting of minorities by the tobacco industry for their Sunday viewpoint section.

And I worked on this, handed what I thought was a really good commentary, and the editor called me back. He said, “No, you didn’t get a response from Philip Morris.” I said, “What do you mean? You mean I have to call up the tobacco companies and ask for their response?” He told me, “You’ve got to do that.”

So I had to call Stanley S. Scott, who was the vice president for Minority Affairs at Philip Morris. And I remember hearing the silence at the other end of the line when he got on the phone and he said, “Is this Dr. Alan Blum, the anti-smoking activist?”

I said, “Well, Mr. Scott, you could call me that, but I think for the purposes of this interview, I have to be a journalist asking for your comments on this.”

Well, within about 15 minutes, he was inviting me to dinner. We talked about our common relationships, because as I mentioned, my uncles were very involved with Coretta Scott King’s family, and her kids were patients of my uncle and so forth.

And of course, I knew the Atlanta Daily World, one of the foremost African-American-owned newspapers, which his family owned and which I read when I was in Atlanta for medical school. We just talked, and I asked him about his service for President Nixon and the fact that under Nixon—people don’t realize this—more minority physicians gained access to medical school positions than under any other administration through the legislation that Stanley S. Scott helped guide under Nixon.

I mean, you have to give people credit, but the sad ending of this story is, although I didn’t take him up on his offer to have dinner, I was invited to speak, I guess about 20 years ago at the LSU Comprehensive Cancer Center. And as I walked in a couple of hours before, I saw over the entrance, “Stanley S. Scott Comprehensive Cancer Center.”

I went in and I asked the person who was the head of the center, “By the way, ‘Do you know who Stanley S. Scott was?’ And he said, ‘Sure. He ran the Miller Beer distributorship here.’ I said, ‘Well, he had been a vice president for a cigarette company. Miller Beer was owned by that cigarette company.’ And he said, ‘Please don’t mention that. Don’t mention that during the talk.’

But I had a lot of respect for Stanley Scott, and I did not know that he was someone who was your classmate.

LS: And his family was very prominent here in Atlanta.

AB: He was a journalist basically, too.

LS: Yes, yes. But there was an organization called The Hungry Club here in Atlanta. In those years, Blacks were not given membership in the Rotary Club.

The Butler Street YMCA had this group that was formed in the Black community called The Hungry Club, which would host speakers. Stanley’s dad was the owner of the Atlanta Daily World and would speak. Stanley and his father and his family, they were very staunch Republicans, but they were working with the Democrats, Black Democrats, really for the same purpose.

So repealing the white primary here in Georgia—where if you were African American, you couldn’t vote in the primaries. You could vote in the main election, but you couldn’t vote in the election to select the candidates for each party.

They fought that. I knew Stanley and his family very well, and of course when he became a White House staffer, we were very excited for him. We had that disagreement. We remained friends. But that was one time that he offered to be helpful, but we really couldn’t accept that.

AB: I would be remiss in not acknowledging some of the individuals whom you’ve alluded to. You’ve been married, if I’m not mistaken, to Ginger Williamson for 68 years.

LS: That’s correct.

AB: Could you share a little bit more about her?

LS: Yes. Well, that was a very interesting event, the way that happened.

AB: You met at Morehouse?

LS: I met her in my first year of medical school when I went to Boston. That was my first time living in a non-segregated environment. It was 1954, which also was the year of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. At Boston University, two blocks away was a female dormitory called the Franklin Square House.

Ginger had come down to Boston from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the western part of the state, to attend Northeastern University. I was introduced by a fraternity brother I had met there in Boston who was trying to help me acclimatize to my new surroundings.

I met Ginger—she was a great tennis player, and we really hit it off. I didn’t have much money, so we would walk along the Charles River for dates. And I had sung in the Morehouse College Glee Club, because Morehouse has always had an outstanding choir.

I would sing Glee Club songs. That worked. We got married my next year, my sophomore year in medical school. And so we’ve been together all these years, and we have three children, all of them born in Boston. They’re of course now grownups, but we have really had a great life together.

And I also should mention that the things I’ve been able to accomplish, she deserves a lot of credit for it because she’s the glue for our family. And while I was busy down at Boston City Hospital or at BU Medical School, she would be taking care of the family and doing all of those things. And she also worked during my internship, and so she helped bring in the funds for the family as well. She’s been a true partner all these years.

AB: Thank you for sharing. I had two questions about your Boston years. Now you talked about a non-segregated environment, but Boston was known notoriously for the violence shown toward African Americans during the era of busing and other issues. I don’t think it gets off the hook as being a non-segregated environment.

LS: It’s interesting. You’re speaking of the era of Louise Day Hicks, who was a Boston City Council person. She came to power in the late 1950s when they were promoting busing to integrate the schools. And of course, she lived in South Boston, and she actually was quite successful in generating a lot of opposition.

It was interesting that I ended up in medical school in September of ‘54 and was well received at BU and in Boston finding a place to rent. But by the late ‘fifties, the tensions in Boston had developed quite dramatically so that someone going to Boston in the late-‘fifties had a very different experience than someone in the mid-‘fifties. When I went, for example, with all of the history of Boston with the American Revolution, the Tea Party, the shootings at the Concord Bridge, the Minutemen, and Paul Revere, I really was very interested in that history, things I had read about or had been taught about.

I really took the tour of Boston, the various cultural organizations, the museums, the symphony, all of the universities, the beautiful river between Boston and Cambridge.

For me, it was a very pleasant experience, but then became very different later on. I ended up on the faculty at Boston University. In 1968, when King was assassinated, I was assistant professor at the medical school, and several of us worked to recruit more Black students, not only to Boston University, but to Harvard and Tufts, Dartmouth, Vermont, UMass, because when King was assassinated, we all looked at our medical schools and saw that we had very few Blacks.

The reaction we had, and of course this was similar to the rest of the universities around the country, was that we took up King’s work. We worked very hard, but we ran into this problem because of the tensions that had been generated by the busing controversy there in Boston.

It was very, very unfortunate. Today, we’re going through a similar phase with the resistance now. It’s unfortunate, because I would say that in the same way that we have made progress in reducing tobacco use, but we still have more to achieve to improve the health of Americans.

The same with our divisions within our society, not only in those years, when the minority community was the African American community. Today, the minority  community includes not only African Americans, but Latinos, Native Americans, and other immigrants.

And I find it unfortunate and ironic, and frankly to me, a conflict in our values to see the very strong anti-immigrant feelings in our society. I certainly agree that we need to do better in terms of the integrity of our borders, but some of the measures that are being used, I really find as an American really objectionable because all of these individuals are human.

And the only group here in America, in our diverse society that you could say are the true Native Americans, are the American Indians. All of us came from somewhere else. We’ve all learned to live together. I’m hoping that we can get through this period and maintain our value system,  because what we profess to believe in is very encouraging, very inspiring, but sometimes in the execution or living up to it, we fall short.

And so as an American, I really want to do everything I can, not only to improve the health of Americans, but the level of education and the quality of life that we enjoy. Hopefully we will reach that goal at some time in the future.

AB: Listening to you, it reminds me of Charles Blow of The New York Times and his columns describing his upbringing in Louisiana in the very same neighborhood as the current Speaker of the House, and their contrasting viewpoints and describing the relative difficulties that someone of a minority population faces compared to those who have traditionally been entitled.

As we begin to wrap up, I just want to mention again how much I appreciate your tribute to your own family doctor growing up, Dr Joseph Griffin, and to your dad [Walter W. Sullivan, Senior] and to your mom [Lubirda, a teacher and graduate of Clark College] in rural Georgia, and what they did for you, and to the high school teachers—because I really fear that we’re not appreciating the most important people and the most important occupation: high school and grade school teachers. And you brought that out so beautifully.

LS: I really was very fortunate that I had great role models growing up, starting with my parents, because my father, when we moved from Atlanta to Blakely, Georgia, brought suit against the school system because it really was separate but not equal.

For example, the white high school had a band with instruments. There was no band at the Black school. The white school had a library, the Black school didn’t, etc. He worked against that. And so as a result of that, he had difficulty living there. And, actually, someone shot my father.They tried to kill him. He survived that, but that was the experience.

They sent my brother and me back to Atlanta when I was starting in fifth grade, my brother in sixth grade, so that we would get a better education. And in Atlanta, we were exposed not only to the faculty of the Black colleges, but also to the Black businessmen, doctors, and others.

But in Southwest Georgia, there was one Black physician you alluded to, Dr. Joseph Griffin. He was someone I totally admired because he had skills that no one else had. He could treat people who were sick and cure them, make them well. He also treated his patients with respect.

Whereas, when we had two doctors in Blakely, one of whom was white and when you went to see him, you’d have to go around back through a separate entrance to wait until he had taken care of all of the white patients. And his patients who were Black would always be dressed by their first name—it would be be John or Mary rather than Mr.Johnson or Mrs. Smith..

We noticed that, and we resented that because all of these very blatant signals trying to say that you are less worthy. Dr. Griffin, because of his skills and also because he treated his patients with respect, I admired, and he was very successful.

By the time I was five, I was very clear I wanted to be a doctor. So he was my first professional role model. As you mentioned, my teachers in school I admired also, and my mother [a graduate of Clark College] was a teacher as well. I loved learning, and I was always curious about everything. How do trees grow? Or birds sing? Or why do waves occur at the beach? Things like that that we would talk about.

I always loved learning, and I really had people who encouraged me all along. And of course, my experience at Morehouse College was again reinforcing. The president of the college, Dr. Benjamin Mays, really inspired all of us. He was a role model for Martin Luther King Jr.

AB: Did you know Dr. King in Boston? Did you ever run into him?

LS: No. It was very interesting. I never did. I went to Boston in 1954. He was there at the School of Religion, and I believe he left in 1956 to go to Alabama. So, I did not know him, but I heard about him. I met him later in 1963, when he visited Boston. My wife and I attended Christ Church there in the Cambridge Common. He visited there, and that’s when he made his speech about bringing peace to Vietnam.

AB: Which he was reviled for.

LS: Oh, I know it was. He was a truly remarkable person. And then later, of course, when he was assassinated in April of ‘68, we had the reaction at the medical school that I mentioned, and we brought in many more Black students, not only at Boston University, but at Harvard, Tufts, Dartmouth, and UMass as well, because we took the work that King was trying to accomplish as our own work as a result of his leadership.

AB: Just as we wrap it up, in 1997, Dr. Koop called me—he said, “Keep this under your hat.”

He said this is as the state attorney generals were suing the tobacco industry for all the damage that they’d done to health, and they were aiming to get billions and billions. And he said, I think they’re going to reach a settlement, and they’ve asked me to be the master of the funding that is going to come from this industry. Part of it will be going to fight smoking, and they’re going to be giving us a few billion dollars.

And he said they were going to have me managing the books and overseeing this. He said, “I’m calling you because I told them I will do this under only one condition, that the first $100 million goes toward rebuilding the National Health Museum on the Mall in Washington, and of which $10 million will go to you, Dr. Blum, to direct the tobacco component of the museum.”

He said, “Don’t tell anyone, but keep your fingers crossed.” Well, I had reservations about that whole deal anyway, because I would rather have seen some of these tobacco executives go to prison rather than our just getting money.

But I said, “That will be something if we could build this museum.” And then of course, that fell through when Senator McCain jacked up the price [that the industry would have to pay], and the Senate voted against this agreement. The next year, a much weaker agreement was agreed to, and they did get some money, but that [master position] went to somebody else.  The American Legacy Foundation was created, which I personally think squandered a lot of that money—only 2% of that money goes to fight smoking today, by the way, that was given to the states under the Master Settlement Agreement.

But you have a passion all these years, with Dr. Koop, for the revival of the National Health Museum. I should add that there is the National Museum of Health and Medicine, which is the military medicine museum that’s now in Silver Spring []. They’ve got a beautiful new building, and Dr. Adrianne Noe, the remarkable director, has been there for over 30 years.

But it must have been a real difficult time to try to see us not getting this museum, which Dr. Koop and you had been hoping for. Is there any chance that even a virtual National Health Museum might get us off the ground?

LS: Well, I would love to see that, but we really had a difficult time. And of course, while I really am pleased with the things that we have accomplished, the National Health Museum is one of those things that we were not successful in developing.

And I found that it was difficult to explain the concept to people in such a way that they understood why this was important and what we were trying to do.

Because here we were trying to give people information as to what is a healthy lifestyle? What is the value of exercise? How does diet influence someone? What about sunlight? What about allergens and medical checkups? And of course, Koop had started the whole concept of the National Health Museum, but we could never find land for it on the Mall.

And then I became involved, and we decided to look around the country and see if there would be another site for it. We were not successful with that. This was one of those things that we finally, reluctantly said is something whose time is not yet here, but hopefully will come. I would love to see it, but this is something I think for the next generation to develop.

AB: Well, on a more hopeful note, I will just continue to keep the pilot light lit for this because I think these days of virtual media, just as we’re speaking now through Zoom, I think that, especially in this era of disinformation, of hate, of AI remaking history, of vaccine hesitancy, a national health museum with a name attached such as yours and others in the health field would mean a lot. It would really counteract this age of disinformation.

And so I’ll hold out hope for this and hope we can merge our tobacco website into it. But it’s a sad thing that we’re seeing so much disinformation. We’re seeing infectious diseases that we thought we had eradicated reemerging. We’re seeing vaccine rates plummet in Mississippi, which had the best vaccination program. More exemptions now are being given for vaccines, I think, than in any other state. It’s gone from having the best vaccination program heading toward one of the worst. We have our work cut out for us, but I hope that you’ll have this hope that maybe we could revive this idea. And I would love to see this as capping your remarkable career.

LS: Well, thank you very much. I would love to see that because I think it would do so much, because I often say that a healthy nation is a wealthy nation.

That is, if you have a healthy population, they can be more productive in innovation, developing goods and services and wealth in the community, and independence, so that it really goes beyond health, but it goes to the fiber of the nation itself. This would have many benefits, so I would be happy to join with anyone to really try and make that happen.

AB: As for the CDC’s Museum, I’ve had some concerns. They had invited me to have an exhibition when they opened in the 2000s, but it was literally blocked.

It was called “Cartoonists Take Up Smoking.” It wound up going to the National Museum of Health and Medicine for a full year. And Adrianne kept extending it. Someone at the CDC saw it, and wrote to me, “Why don’t we have it here in Atlanta?”

[We were well along in the planning phase when it was abruptly canceled.] And part of the reason I suspected was that several of the cartoons made fun of people like Jesse Helms and Bob Dole, who did not believe that the tobacco issue was an important one.

But in any event, I think if there were an independent national health museum, that would really be something. I watch these commercials today for Keytruda, and I wonder, why is a $150,000-a-year drug being advertised to the general public? I don’t understand this. They could be taking that kind of money to really help educate people how to prevent cancer. But we’re still not there yet. Dr. Sullivan, I hope you’ll continue to lend your voice to getting better education for people on prevention and not just treatment after the fact.

LS: Well, I certainly intend to do everything I can to improve the health of Americans because I see this as a dual calling. I feel very good when we’re able to help educate the public, or I could write something that would be of value. Indeed, I’d be very happy to be involved.

AB: You haven’t missed a beat, and you haven’t skipped a step. I just can’t thank you enough for taking the time, and for Gayle Converse to help arrange this, and best wishes for everything you do for Morehouse and for health in America. Thank you so much, Dr. Sullivan.

LS: Well, thank you. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.