With Leonard Nimoy’s dying from COPD, it seems like a good time to finally write an article about cigarette marketing and their more general danger to democracy. But I should be clear: what Nimoy did was good. He quit smoking in his early 50s. It would have been better if he had quit in his early 30s. But it is doubtless that the last three decades of his life were far better because he had quit smoking — and I’m not just talking about health and longevity. Smoking is terrible. Heavy smokers wake up each morning in withdrawal. They don’t feel as good. They are ostracized. They don’t enjoy the tastes of food and spirits as much as they could.
I was reading about a study recently that found that tobacco and heroin were opposites. Heroin had a very high mortality rate in the short term, but basically no direct long term harm once you quit. Smoking cigarettes basically can’t kill you in the short term — even over a few years. But its use can harm you long after you stop. I’m only comparing them because heroin is considered “the hardest drug” and cigarettes are completely legal. Now certainly, heroin is more mythology than anything at this point. But why is it that we won’t let people drink until they are 21 years old, but these cancer time bombs are available at only 18?
Back in 1992, I had a mind blowing experience. I was in Hong Kong riding on one of the ferries that took me from where I was staying in the rich area, where white people went to conferences, to the poorer area where things were interesting. And I saw a poster on the ferry for “the world’s best selling cigarette.” And I had never heard of it. What I took away from that was that while the United States was in the process of quitting this deadly habit, the cigarette companies were busy exporting it everywhere else.
In 1994, Roger Rosenblatt at The New York Times wrote, How Do Tobacco Executives Live With Themselves? Apparently, they live with themselves exactly the same way they do today, because if anything, their behavior is worse now. To answer the question, I suspect they have no trouble living with themselves. Their excessive pay packages and a little “libertarian” theory about “freedom” is all that is required.
John Oliver did an excellent segment on it early this month, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Tobacco. In the past, we had all those tobacco executives lying about the health effects of cigarettes. Now, they are bullying smaller countries to keep people smoking as long as they are breathing. It has a special relevance to me, because I know that I could take on a libertarian persona and write about politics from a conservative but interesting perspective. And in doing so, I’m sure that I could get people to pay me. Yet I don’t do that because I think it is wrong — because it would make the political discourse slightly worse. These are people who think it is just peachy to kill in the name of their quarterly bonuses.
I’ll admit, I’m really behind the curve on this and I shouldn’t be. I had thought that since tobacco had become so much less profitable here in the United States, that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies would just diversify. You know: start making toilet paper and garden supplies. But no. They’ve just grown their markets in other countries where the people are less able to protect them. Also, even in Australia, Philip Morris International is using an obscure part of an old trade agreement to fight an anti-smoking law. This, of course, is a big part of the concern about TPP and TTIP.
This is an outrage regarding cigarettes, but there is just as deadly a larger issue here. Corporations are trying to set up legal frameworks that tie the hands of democratic governance. You think cigarettes shouldn’t be allowed to be marketed to teens? Too bad! We’ve got this treaty that says it doesn’t matter what your democracy wants. This is, interestingly, akin to a very old conservative complaint about the United Nations. But this is an actual threat. My hope is that conservatives and liberals will actually come together on this one. But give Fox News a week of blanket coverage, and I’m not sure many conservatives will care. It will be like “right to work” laws. These will be “right to hire” treaties. But I haven’t given up hope.
 This is probably a false memory. As far as I can tell, Marlboro was and still is the best selling. It was very likely Asia’s best selling cigarette. But it doesn’t change the point.