Cabbages and Tobacco

Barry O'Neill

Yale School of Management, August 1995

The European Commission has been considering a ban on newspaper and magazine ads for smoking. A law like this would have a double impact on the tobacco industry: it would make it harder to recruit new smokers, and allow the industry less influence over the media. In April, Philip Morris countered with full-page ads in European magazines and papers. One proclaimed in banner print: "Pythagoras' theorem contains 24 words, Archimedes' Principle 67, the Ten Commandments 179, the Declaration of Independence 300, and recent European legislation concerning when and where you can smoke, 24,942." Lawmakers, the ad warned, have a "passion to regulate down to the finest detail of people's lives."

When officials of the Commission objected that no such law existed, Philip Morris had to explain its 24,942-word figure. It had totaled up 41 different laws in 15 different countries. Unwilling to really correct its distortion, the company changed the wording from "recent European legislation" to "recent legislation in Europe," and continued the ads in June.

Sherlock Holmes was fond of saying that the smallest details can be the most informative. Through the controversy, no one noted another false statistic in the ad -- the 300-word figure for the Declaration of Independence. In fact the Declaration has 1,322 words, not including signatures. How could a company as American as the Marlboro man come to be spreading this misinformation across Europe? The explanation for the 300-word statistic is a curious one, covering five decades of mythology against government regulation.

Philip Morris did not construct its ad from whole cloth. Like an old folksong or joke, the ad drew on an existing theme, known to those of us who watch such phenomena as the "Great Cabbage Myth." Since the 1940's, politicians, columnists and business leaders have repeated the cabbage myth hundreds of times. Walter Winchell stated it as fact in 1952 in an attack on federal price controls during the Korean War. His version was typical: he reported that the Lord's Prayer has 56 words, the Gettysburg Address 266, the Ten Commandments 297, the Declaration of Independence 300, but a regulation issued by the Office of Price Stabilization controlling the price of cabbages required 26,911 words.

In fact the U.S. has never regulated cabbage prices. The cabbage myth was a great distortion of an actual document, a 1943 directive on cabbage seed. Holland, America's main source of the seed, had fallen to the Nazis, and a California speculator bought up the remaining supply, grown in Puget Sound. When he raised the price 800%, the Roosevelt Administration issued a directive setting a ceiling. The document had only 2,000 words, but at one point it included a definition of cabbage seed as "seed used to grow cabbage." One of the drafters wanted to omit the definition, but was told by his supervisor that all important terms must be defined. The memo came to the attention of the conservative Reader's Digest, which ridiculed it as bureaucratic verbiage.

Clare Booth Luce repeated the story occasionally in the late 1940s, but the ground became more fertile with Korean War price controls. By 1951 the regulation became attributed to Truman's Office of Price Stabilization, the list of succinct patriotic and religious documents had been added, and cabbage seed became simply cabbages. The imaginary regulation's wordcount rose ten-fold.

The cabbage myth appeared in newspapers, public speeches, and even as a quiz question on the popular radio program "Double or Nothing." In 1951 the New York Times printed a story debunking it, as other papers have done since, but it has come back each decade in a series of waves. In 1984 a deputy secretary of agriculture informed his audience of the 26,911-word directive and promised to deal with the problem. George Will and Ronald Reagan asserted it as an example of big government. In June of this year Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who obtained the bogus wordcounts from Congressman David MacIntosh of Indiana, recited the myth on the Senate floor.

Folk variants have sprouted. In 1977 Walter Cronkite reported as fact that a regulation involving the price of duck eggs went on for 26,911 words. In this decade, conservative leaders in England and Germany have often warned of an European Economic Community decree on caramel. The edible is new and tasty, but again, mirabile dictu, the memo is 26,911 words long.

Philip Morris's wordcount for the Declaration of Independence reveals that its ad descended from the cabbage myth. Whoever it was that elaborated on the cabbage seed regulation around 1950 made this slip, and anti-regulators have repeated the miscount since.

The story of the real cabbage seed memo indicates that it was reasonably succinct and accomplished a worthwhile purpose. Of course, the target of the cabbage myth is not one document, but government regulations in general. It belongs with a group of anti-regulation scare stories, including tales of OSHA rules that ban gum-chewing on construction projects, or require holes in water buckets to prevent drowning. The suggestion is that we should not weigh the benefits of each government regulation, case by case, but be ready to reject the whole enterprise, whether the focus is the innocent cabbage, or matters of life and health like industrial accidents and tobacco.