Apologizing for Murder

Cigarettes are Cheerful!The Philip Morris Company, whose core business is manufacturing and marketing tobacco products, has started running television advertisements for the company’s Web site, ads that spotlight PhilMo’s commitment to helping people quit smoking. The spots assure consumers that a visit to www.phillipmorrisusa.com will yeild stark scientific evidence that smoking causes all the diseases that for decades cigarette companies said it did not.

We went to the Web site, which contains no imagery or advertising. In chillingly stark and unequivocal language, PhilMo states that it agrees with the government and the medical community. It agrees with society’s assessment. It agrees: Smoking kills.

These admissions may be found in the “About Us” section, as a sub-category of “Mission & Values.”

A few years ago, the comic novelists Christopher Buckley wrote a brilliant lampoon called Thank You for Smoking, about a poor fellow who has the worst job in the world: Washington lobbyist for theThank You for Smoking Poster tobacco industry. His best friend works for the gun lobby. These well-paid shills are faced with what seems like an impossible task: Convincing legislators whose mission is supposedly to look out for the good of their constituents that cigarettes aren’t really that bad.

Now the cigarette people are trying a different tack. Their strategy seems to be: admit everything and then make a big deal out of how we’re trying to help people quit.

Facing jillion-dollar lawsuits and compelled to abide by strict settlement terms, cigarette makers are suddenly motivated to curb youth smoking and stop marketing Young smokerstheir products to teenagers and all that responsible-sounding jazz. But they’re still permitted to produce and sell a product that demonstrably harms society. Imagine if scientific studies concluded that a certain artificial sweetener caused cancer. Would soda companies be permitted to continue selling their Diet Pop if it was known that it caused brain tumors? Would our righteous lawmakers stand idly by while thousands of Americans fell ill?

We believe people ought to be able to ingest or smoke anything they want, and that it’s not society’s place to tell individuals how to care for (or abuse) their body. We also believe a product that costs society billions of dollars every year in health care and productivity losses ought to be taxed at a commensurate level — high enough that we can build dedicated “smoker hospitals” for people stupid enough to use cigarettes.

Until then, under the guise of “responsible corporate citizen,” tobacco companies will find a way to make sure their ever-shrinking pool of adult smokers will still be replenished by new addicts. PhilMo’s Web site is a great example of how the American game is played. So long as your army of lawyers can craft the language and policies that put your company “in compliance” with the rules, you may get away with murder.

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