Eric Lawson, who portrayed the iconic “Marlboro Man” in print ads for Marlboro cigarettes from 1978 to 1981, died Jan. 10 at his home in San Luis Obispo. The cause of death: respiratory failure due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. He was 72.
A smoker since age 14, Lawson became the latest of Phillip Morris’ rugged cowboys to fall victim to smoking-related disease since the character was introduced in the mid-1950s. The Marlboro Man campaign was conceived as a way to popularize filtered cigarettes, which at the time were considered feminine. The unveiling of the Marlboro Man had an incredible, immediate effect on sales. In 1955, when the campaign was started, sales were at $5 billion. Just two years later, they reached $20 billion, a 300% increase.
In 1999, Advertising Age declared: “The most powerful — and in some quarters, most hated — brand image of the century, the Marlboro Man stands worldwide as the ultimate American cowboy and masculine trademark, helping establish Marlboro as the best-selling cigarette in the world.”
Lawson was just one of several Marlboro Men to have died from a smoking-related illness.
- Wayne McLaren died of lung cancer in 1992
- David Millar died of emphysema in 1987
- David McLean died of lung cancer in 1995
- Dick Hammer died of lung cancer in 1999
Lawson turned the tables on Phillip Morris later in life when he became an anti-smoking advocate, starring in a TV commercial that parodied the Marlboro Man. Lawson also took part in an interview on Entertainment Tonight where he talked about the hazards of smoking.
“He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him,” Lawson’s wife, Susan, said in an interview with Variety. “He knew, yet he still couldn’t stop.” Susan Lawson spoke about how proud her husband was of participating in the Entertainment Tonight interview despite the fact that he was still smoking at the time — he didn’t quit cigarettes until he was diagnosed with COPD in 2006, his wife said. COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, is a lung disease that makes it hard to breathe. It is caused by damage to the lungs over many years, usually from smoking, and is typically a mix of emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
Lawson also filmed a public service announcement for the American Cancer Society in the 1990s warning of the dangers of secondhand smoke. In the spot, the smoking cowboy’s horse suddenly falls over with a heavy thud as the message “Secondhand Smoke Kills” comes up on the screen.
In retrospect, the lines on Lawson’s face as he squinted into the sun in those vintage ads were more likely the telltale sign of the nicotine addiction that would one day claim his life than of years spent in the great outdoors. Lawson was no cowboy, but rather an actor by trade, appearing in the TV shows The Streets of San Francisco, Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty and Baywatch.
Lawson was preceded in death by Wayne McLaren, a stuntman and rodeo rider who was hired by Phillip Morris in 1976 to be the sexy smoker. McLaren, who had a pack-and-a-half a day smoking habit, succumbed to lung cancer at age 51 in 1992. After his diagnosis at age 49, McLaren waged an anti-smoking war against Marlboro, complaining that the ads targeted kids, “the only target the companies have left.”
“I’ve spent the last month of my life in an incubator and I’m telling you, it’s just not worth it,” McLaren told a Los Angeles Times reporter from his deathbed in Newport Beach, where he lay tethered by tubes to machines.
After his death, McLaren’s mother, Louise, told The Times that some of McLaren’s last words were, “Take care of the children. Tobacco will kill you, and I am living proof of it.” While McLaren fought hard against the cancer invading his body, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation after having a lung removed, sexy was anything but the proper description of the man as he lay near death.
David Millar of Meriden, N.H., who was one of the first Marlboro Men on television screens in the 1950s, succumbed to emphysema in 1987 at age 81. Marlboro Man David McLean, who appeared in television and print advertisements beginning in the early 1960s, started suffering in 1985 from emphysema and had a tumor removed from a lung in 1994. McLean was was 73 when he died in 1995.
In the 1970s, Phillip Morris looked to a firefighter and Olympic athlete to be its next Marlboro Man. Dick Hammer, of Long Beach, Calif., died in 1999 from lung cancer at the age of 69. Hammer was better known for his role as Captain Hammer in the TV show Emergency!