FORMER "WINSTON MAN" David Goerlitz compares his new role as anti-tobacco activist to that of the child who denies that his parents are breaking the law.
"I'm like that little boy who loves his parents and doesn't want to believe that they are into illegal crimes -- like drug-pushing," Goerlitz said. "He denies it and denies it, and finally the evidence is so strong that he has to do something about it. So he turns them in."
Goerlitz, too, has bitten the hand that fed him -- quite handsomely, in fact. Only Goerlitz's estranged "parents" are the $600 billion tobacco industry. For six years, he was paid $80,000 a year to sell cigarettes and represent the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. as the Winston Man. During the 1980s, he appeared in countless print ads and on billboards and coupons.
The ads are memorable. Goerlitz was the rugged guy with the chiseled features who rappelled off glaciers and hung out of helicopters.
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Goerlitz admits he made a big mistake by persuading young people to light up. Now he wants to tell the world about the hazards of the product he spent years promoting.
Since quitting a 24-year nicotine addiction last November ("I was up to 3 1/2 packs a day," he said), Goerlitz has visited 52 schools and 25 Fortune 500 companies, appeared in videos for the American Cancer Society and served as spokesman for the cancer society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association.
Today, he is in Buffalo to speak at the American Heart Association conference at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. Wednesday, he threw out the first pitch at Pilot Field during the Buffalo Bisons-Rochester Red Wings game.
"My choice is to go public with what I did and to let America know for real what we are looking at here," said Goerlitz, 39, who lives in Berlin, N.J. "The tobacco industry is so powerfully wealthy, and they have so many lobbyists . . . the health organizations can't hold a candle to the funds available to do counter-advertising effectively."
Goerlitz is adamantly opposed to tobacco ads that appeal to young people with "lulling, subliminal suggestions of false imagery and false representation of good health, success, sexiness, ruggedness and prosperity."
The rugged Winston ads targeted boys ages 11 to 14, he said. "I was the 'Soldier of Fortune,' the 'Man with a Mission' who headed up camaraderie and unity and represented heroism and bravery. These 11-, 12-, 13- and 14-year-old boys are generally the ones who are breaking away from the family unit and developing their own role models, wanting to be something they're not," he said.
"The American Heart Association knows that advertising campaigns work, otherwise the tobacco companies would not be spending as much money on them as they do," said Heather D. McDuff, executive director of the heart association's Western New York chapter. "The American Heart Association focuses on two areas: children and prevention of heart disease. We hope that David Goerlitz's talking to children will have as much impact, in reverse, as the companies do in their advertisements."
Goerlitz himself began smoking at age 15. "As a kid, I was a bed-wetter; I was cross-eyed; I was heavy; I wasn't athletic at all, and everybody was telling me to grow up and stop acting like a baby," said Goerlitz, who was born in Binghamton. "So the only thing I could do to make me feel like an adult was to do an adult thing."
During the '60s, the hazards weren't known. But even today with the surgeon general's warnings, Goerlitz is not convinced that a 14-year-old is accountable for his actions.
"Here you have a 'drug' that is readily accessible to children in any store, in any vending machine and everywhere they turn, whether it's magazines, billboards, clocks, car races, rock concerts or cultural events," Goerlitz said. "We have a crime here, and I think the crime has to be addressed."
Goerlitz admits that he is a man "possessed with a cause." He said he receives no money from the health groups he represents (making personal appearances has cost him about $8,000 in the past six months). He supports his family by earning $26,000 a year as a real estate investor.
His motivation? "I love kids. I'm a father of three (ages 6, 11 and 18), and through the years they have unfortunately received the benefits of my smoking in their faces; my daughter is allergic to it, but I didn't care," he said. "My wife was very angry with me for many years after the children were born. I wouldn't stop smoking even when she was pregnant."
Goerlitz hopes to energize others to speak out "against sentencing kids to a 30-year-premature death."
"It's going to take protests, it's going to take marches; it's going to take some militancy," Goerlitz said. "But I think a half-million lives a year are worth it."