Fact Check

The Marlboro Man Died of Lung Cancer?

Rumor: The actor who portrayed the 'Marlboro Man' died of lung cancer.

Published Sept. 11, 1999


Claim:   The actor who portrayed the "Marlboro Man" in print and television cigarette advertisements died of lung cancer.


Examples:   [Collected via e-mail, 1999]

I heard that the actor who was the Marlboro Man in TV commercials died of lung cancer from smoking. Is that true?


Origins:   When a prominent study was released in the 1950s linking smoking to lung cancer, it presented Philip Morris, the manufacturer of the Marlboro brand of cigarettes, with a dilemma: many consumers were concerned enough about the health issues associated with smoking to want to switch to filtered cigarettes (which were perceived as safer), but many men viewed filtered cigarettes — and the Marlboro brand in particular, which had originally been marketed as a woman's product, advertised as being mild and ladylike and featuring a red band around one end to disguise lipstick stains — as too feminine. Philip Morris' response to this issue was to reposition Marlboro as a men's cigarette promoted via advertisements featuring strong masculine figures; the rugged 'Marlboro Man' cowboy became one of the most prominent advertising icons of the mid-twentieth century, propelling Marlboro from a niche brand to the world's best-selling cigarette.

The visibility of the Marlboro Man as an icon has diminished greatly in the U.S. since its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, however, as increasing evidence linking cigarette smoking to a variety of medical ailments has caused the prevalence of smoking to decline and prompted the passage of restrictions limiting the media in which cigarettes could be advertised. Many anti-smoking advocates

have since cited claims that "the Marlboro Man died of lung cancer" as an apt irony highlighting the dangers of smoking, a literal death foreshadowing the eventual demise of the product the Marlboro Man helped prompted to many millions of consumers.

Any claim about "the" Marlboro Man is somewhat indefinite, though, as many different men have portrayed the rugged-looking cowboys featured in Marlboro cigarette advertisements since 1954. An Oklahoma native named Darrell Winfield (who passed away in January 2015) was the main Marlboro Man from the mid-1970s onwards; but dozens of other men (many of them "real" cowboys) have also modeled for television commercials, magazine and newspaper advertisements, billboards, and other advertising materials promoting Marlboro brand of cigarettes over the last sixty years. A few of those men, all long-time smokers, have died of diseases of the lungs (although most of them lived at least as long as the average life expectancy of their time):

  • Model David Millar, one of the original Marlboro Men who appeared in television commercials for the cigarette brand in the 1950s, died of emphysema at the age of 81 in 1987:

    [Neighbor Stephen] Taylor said Millar smoked, but had quit about 20 years ago. He also quit horses after his early stints with Marlboro.

    "They used to boost him up by a rope and put him down on the horse because he didn't like horses," said Charles Dudley, a longtime friend.

    Dudley added that Millar often said he was "the only Marlboro Man who doesn't smoke, drink or like horses."

    Although Millar had quit [smoking] about 1965, he had smoked for "probably 40 to 45 years" before that, Dudley said.

    After Millar, Marlboro gravitated toward more authentic cowboys.

    Born in St. Louis, Millar worked as an advertising executive in magazine publishing and modeled for fashion magazines, his wife, Maria, said.

    In New Hampshire, where he had lived since retiring in 1961, he was an avid outdoorsman and active in civic and community affairs.

  • Wayne McLaren, who posed for some promotional photographs on behalf of Marlboro in 1976, succumbed to lung cancer at age 51 on 22 July 1992. McLaren was a former professional rodeo rider who appeared in small parts in various television series and movies (primarily Westerns) throughout the 1960s and 1970s, and he modeled for print advertising between acting jobs in the mid-1970s, including a Marlboro campaign in 1976. McLaren, who had a pack-and-a-half a day smoking habit, was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 49. Despite chemotherapy, the removal of one lung, and radiation treatments, the cancer eventually spread to his brain and killed him. After learning he had cancer, McLaren embarked on an anti-smoking campaign that included the production of a commercial described as follows:

    In the powerful TV spot, images of the handsome young Wayne McLaren in a Stetson hat are juxtaposed with shots of his withered form in a hospital bed just prior to his death. His brother, Charles, provides the voiceover and chides tobacco companies for promoting an 'independent' lifestyle and asks, 'Lying there with all those tubes in you, how independent can you really be?'

    In the last months of his life McLaren appeared before the Massachusetts legislature when it was considering a bill to add taxes to cigarettes to pay for health education and also spoke at the annual Philip Morris stockholders' meeting to support a resolution that the company limit its advertising. Philip Morris initially denied that McLaren had ever appeared in Marlboro advertising, but a company spokesperson later conceded that McLaren's image had been used in a retail display for Marlboro Texan Poker Cards. (The woman McLaren lived with for the last eight years of his life also produced a Marlboro magazine advertisement which she claimed pictured McLaren.)

  • David McLean, who appeared in many Marlboro television and print advertisements starting in the early 1960s, also died of cancer at age 73 on 12 October 1995. McLean starred in the short-lived 1960 television Western Tate, and he played roles in numerous television series and feature films during the 1960s and 1970s. McLean took up smoking at age 12, began to suffer from emphysema in 1985, and had a cancerous tumor removed from his right lung in 1993.

    Despite the surgery, the cancer remained and spread to his brain and spine, and McLean succumbed to it in 1995. In August 1996 McLean's widow and son filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Philip Morris, Inc., claiming that McLean was unable to stop smoking because of his nicotine addiction, and that his smoking habit was the cause of his lung cancer. (The lawsuit contended, among other issues, that McLean had been obligated to smoke up to five packs per take in order to get the right look while posing for advertisements, and that he received cartons of Marlboro cigarettes as gifts from Philip Morris.) At last report (in 1999) the lawsuit was still pending, having outlasted all attempts by defendant Philip Morris to have it dismissed.

  • In 2014, Eric Lawson, another television actor who appeared in Marlboro advertisements between 1978 to 1981, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) at the age of 72. Like Wayne McLaren, Lawson was also a habitual smoker from an early age who in later life publicized the dangers of smoking and contributed to the production of an anti-smoking commercial:

    A smoker since age 14, Lawson later appeared in an anti-smoking commercial that parodied the Marlboro man and an "Entertainment Tonight" segment to discuss the negative effects of smoking. Susan [Lawson] said her husband was proud of the interview, even though he was smoking at the time and continued the habit until he was diagnosed with COPD.

    "He knew the cigarettes had a hold on him," she said. "He knew, yet he still couldn't stop."

    Although diseases such as lung cancer and COPD are strongly linked to cigarette smoking, it is not possible to definitively determine that any particular instance of such a disease was caused by smoking.

    Last updated:   15 January 2015

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