Big Tobacco

2 December 1998

It’s been a bit hard to determine which dragon a solitary St. George should take on, when there seem to be dragons everywhere. –Robin McKinley, The Blue Sword

How true, how true. I feel this could turn into a litany of woes longer than “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” or the part of the Declaration of Independence that nobody reads, or the Book of Job (which, actually, I’ve never read, but I hear it’s pretty substantial). But we haven’t world enough or time to go into them all, so, plunging my hand into the hat of possibilities this evening, I come up with the subject of the big tobacco settlement and its relation to free speech and the apocalypse and stuff like that.

As I understand it, the tobacco companies are now going to have to shell out a lot of dough to all the states who signed on to this thing, who are, in turn, going to use it to offset the costs of the public health threat which cigarette-smoking has created, and that, furthermore, they’re going to raise the price of cigarettes some more and use that money to fund more anti-smoking education programs. And, last but not least, yet more forms of cigarette advertising are being banned. There are already so many things that give me pause here that I think I’d better stop to point out a few.

I’m not an advocate of smoking, particularly–it’s obviously not very good for anybody, so I suppose it’s nice that that’s getting some more attention. But last I checked, we were all perfectly well aware of the dangers and risks. Stating them more times doesn’t make them any more true, so I doubt that more education will do any good. As for the bans on advertising–well, this is where I start to get upset. The idea, I gather, is that they want to eradicate all images of smoking being cool from the minds of youth so that they won’t start. They’ve gotten rid of Joe Camel, but I don’t see any of these people saying we ought to get rid of James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, and, for that matter, Leonardo di Caprio, who seems to have a penchant for choosing roles in which he gets to smoke.

Smoking as a cool activity is much more culturally entrenched than a two-dimensional cartoon character–and the advertising people over at Camel obviously know this. Have you checked out their ads recently? I think they’re hilarious, actually. They sneer so obviously. My favorites are the ones which feature a bunch of teenagers/twentysomethings in loud clothes, jumping around a house. In the bottom corner is a bubble just like the ones TV shows have these days, warning us that this situation involves sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, unsavory characters, disregard for authority, etc. You have to admire any advertisement that can mock Joe Camel opponents (by featuring pictures which look almost cartoonish), the Surgeon General’s Warning [with no disrespect meant to C. Everett Koop, who got the warnings enlarged in the first place, and of whom I am a huge fan] and TV-ratings systems all in one fell swoop. What lies underneath the humor, and what keeps the debates about TV-ratings and V-chips and porn on the internet vibrant, though, is an anxiety about the limits of free speech. At the considerably risk of sounding like a right-winger, I’m going to go ahead and say that free speech is more important than keeping images of tobacco icons out of the minds of the young and impressionable. I suppose when Voltaire said he’d fight to the death for your right to say something he disagreed with he wasn’t really expecting the explosion of advertising which various -isms have thrust upon us. It’s hard to defend the free-speech rights of a company as sleazy as Phillip Morris–but it’s necessary.

As for the apocalypse–no, I don’t really think the world is ending, but it does frequently appear to be going to hell in a handbasket. It’s a little hard for me not to be skeptical–not to mention cynical–about things when the first President of the U.S. I can remember started out as a B-movie actor. Actually, I find it quite appropriate that Reagan was President, for it seems like the perfect post for an actor to hold: the greatest role he’ll ever have (or she–but since not even Hollywood, who put Morgan Freeman in the job this past summer, has managed to make a woman president yet, I’m not holding my breath on that one). And it’s that cynicism, I suppose, which makes me wonder if not a few of the lawyers and politicians who won this big tobacco deal are going to spend a few bucks on some celebratory cigars. When they emerge from their smoke-filled rooms, I hope they take a look at the smoke which surrounds us all these days and consider a class-action suit against car manufacturers and oil companies. Cigarette smoke may contain carbon monoxide, but it takes a lifetime of it to kill you. A garage full of car exhaust can do you in in an afternoon.