Joe Camel is America’s rebel hero

We should call 1998 the year of ironic backlash and misguided effort. In Washington D.C., Republicans selectively ignored the facts, went after President Clinton and saw it blow up in their faces. Every time Clinton tried to alleviate the pressure by apologizing or bombing Iraq, the public moaned. If Clinton can continue to do absolutely nothing, he will be fine.
On election eve here at home, while distributing literature for a candidate destined to lose the governor’s race, I ran into several supporters of the eventual winner who mocked me and impugned my manhood. Running into me seemed to strengthen their resolve to vote. If I had stayed at home, my candidate might have won the election.
But the big winner in last year’s backlash sweepstakes has to be the tobacco industry. America’s mangled tobacco debate of ’98 has done more to bolster the tobacco industry’s “bad-boy rebel” image than anything since James Dean. After fighting attornies general across the nation — led by Minnesota’s own Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III — the tobacco industry lost and has to pay the states over $200 billion in restitution. In addition, billboard advertising and promotional giveaways (caps, T-shirts and gym bags) are now banned.
The good news for the tobacco industry is what started as a law enforcement effort by Humphrey to uncover the tobacco industry’s 40-year conspiracy to hide the truth about cigarettes turned into a holy war as the settlement was being reached last year. This turned out to be a priceless media bonanza for the tobacco industry.
Over the summer, a series of “issue ads” framing the situation in terms of pitting Faceless Bureaucratic Big Government against the little guy (smokers saying things like “the government is too much involved in our lives as it is”), hit the airwaves. Activist groups, such as the Minnesota Smokers’ Rights Coalition, chimed in, echoing disdain for Big Government and taking every opportunity to dismiss unfavorable government-funded research (including universities) as politically charged. This successfully painted smokers as the overtaxed underdogs in this battle.
Commentators then came out of the woodwork to defend the tobacco industry and promote the concepts of personal choice and responsibility. Most of these pontificators ignored the basis of the lawsuit: The tobacco industry was charged with breaking consumer laws regarding truth in advertising, misleading business practices and the breach of anti-trust laws (the collusion among the tobacco manufacturers to hide public health information). Similar lawsuits targeting fraudulent vacation marketers, the sale of phony medical devices and other consumer law cases were also conveniently ignored. Instead, they chose to write about the consequences of the settlement in terms of cold, hard cash while characterizing non-smokers as dopey followers of the anti-smoking brigade.
Suddenly, everyone became concerned about the plight of working-class people who will likely directly bear the brunt of the tobacco settlement through higher cigarette prices. Because more than one-half of all smokers have incomes under $30,000, this is a valid concern. However, this outpouring of support seemed a bit fishy. I mean, why wasn’t there a similar display of outrage when state lotteries and flat-tax plans — which also disproportionately affect the working-class — were proposed?
Minimizing the indirect societal costs incurred by the tobacco industry’s misdeeds, which was calculated into the cash settlement, is the most ludicrous of the pro-tobacco arguments. It goes like this. When people die of cancer, heart disease and other tobacco-related illnesses before retirement age, the government saves money on Social Security, pensions and health care. With this in mind, instead of airbags, maybe cars should be equipped with dynamite that explodes upon impact. The instant death of all accident victims will lighten the work load in emergency rooms, virtually eliminate the need for long-term medical treatment and reduce the number of frivolous “whiplash-type” lawsuits.
A continuous stream of opinions articles written by indignant twenty-somethings, proud to be personally responsible for their autonomous decision to begin smoking and even prouder to proclaim their courage to continue and stand tall in the face of “crusading anti-tobacco zealots,” flooded the pages of mainstream and college newspapers. Opinion polls overwhelmingly supported these anecdotes that place the brunt of the responsibility for smoking-related problems on smokers, not the tobacco industry.
Of course, polls must be adjusted for the bias people have against sounding like a gullible idiot. Few people would publicly admit that they succumbed to the charms of the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel. And no one with a shred of self-respect would divulge the real reason they started smoking.
Fact is, we are Americans, and no one can tell us what to do. Knee-jerk reactions against anything resembling a smarmy authority figure are part of our nature. Only the world’s biggest weenies have ever taken Ann “kudos on your virginity” Landers’ or Dear Abby’s advice seriously. The same goes for initiatives such as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and DARE, television programs with a “message” like the old afterschool specials and “Reefer Madness.” Perhaps the biggest offenders in this category are the ultra-pious made-for-TV movies. These always miss the point and display a profound ignorance of the teen psyche. Last year I saw a movie that was so far off the mark, the title should have been, “Drug use is fun, sobriety sucks.”
Messages like this have all the allure of lukewarm pea soup in the eyes of most self-respecting teens. Tobacco executives seem to be the only powerful people who know that teens will react with righteous indignation when they are obviously being patronized and manipulated and will act, or retaliate, accordingly.
Thanks to rebel in all of us, the tobacco industry is in good shape as we head into the 21st century. They will eventually pay off the $200 billion, in part, because the settlement will not allow them to spend as much money on marketing. It doesn’t really matter. All they have to do is sit back, wait for their many enemies to screw up and reap the rewards.
Ed Day’s column appears every Thursday. Send comments to [email protected]