The Scoop

Tobacco Goad

By Bob Harris

AT THE PHILIP MORRIS factory tour in Richmond, Va., the PR begins before you even enter the door. From the outside, the place looks less like a manufacturing facility than a tobacco theme park. A stylized metal sculpture incorporates the logos of all PM’s major brands, including Marlboro, the best-selling coffin nail in the world. The smokestacks are decorated to look like cigarettes, turning belching pollution into a sight gag.

Even the footlights leading to the building are cylindrical with little filter tops.

Once inside, you fill out a guest register. After name and address on the form, there’s a space for “brand,” as if smoking was as automatic as a zip code. They don’t miss a trick.

The lobby is a giant exhibit on smoking’s place as an essential part of America. The company propaganda proudly trumps that almost a hundred million Americans light up every day. They don’t mention the 500,000 customers who die every year, including my dad. There are also displays about Philip Morris’ part in our culture, from TV sponsorship of I Love Lucy to the company’s recent acquisition of Kraft, Miller Beer, Oscar Mayer, and Tombstone Pizza (an apt name if there ever was one).

The company paints itself as politically progressive, pointing toward its Virginia Slims brand’s “positive” messages toward women. The doubling of female lung cancer since 1970 is again somehow neglected.

It’s all bright and polished as heck. The hookahs and snuff boxes in the display cases are as antiseptic and as well presented as the Smithsonian’s exhibits. The schoolkids going along on the tour are getting the idea that smoking is patriotic and clean.

Even the air smells nice.

The humming noise continues. What the hell . . . ? The tour begins with a short film in a viewing room that has large ashtrays screwed prominently on an arm of every seat.

The movie is an extended sales pitch, trumpeting PM’s concern “for consumers of today and a world of tomorrow.” It opens with the familiar old Marlboro Man ads, with the guy on the horse and the western music. The camera zooms in, the gnarly studboy opens his mouth, and out comes . . . Japanese. The schoolkids all laugh. The ads still run in Japan, where the cancer rate has skyrocketed in the last 10 years. Fully half of PM’s sales come from operations in 170 countries. The U.S. Commerce Department and trade representatives have spent the last decade subsidizing tobacco ads overseas and blackmailing smaller countries into lowering trade barriers against cigarettes.

The film boasts of the company’s concern for its people, its work at “creating and improving communities,” and its history of “meeting consumer preferences since 1854.” There’s nothing about the morality of pushing an addictive substance into undeveloped countries for profit. Am I expecting too much?

On we go to the tour bus. Both Vicki, our guide, and the bus are decorated in the red and white Marlboro color scheme. There’s a lot to see–the work area is three football fields of cadaverous contraptions sucking tobacco through underground pipes at 75 mph, requiring the services of 100,000 employees working three shifts to whap out a billion cigarettes a day. In small quantities, tobacco smells OK. But a billion butts’ worth? The place kinda reeks.

No one smokes on the factory floor. Pressed for an explanation–after all, smoking is a healthy patriotic American tradition, right?–Vicki puts it down to “insurance reasons,” newspeak for admitting that smoking is a messy, dirty habit that would eventually make the PM wage slaves cough up blood.

The tour ends at the company store, where visitors can pay for all sorts of PM advertising geegaws and snag as many cigs as their wallets can support. There’s a suggestion box–shaped like a pack of Marlboros, natch–for anyone who has a bright idea on how to increase the efficiency of this gruesome machine.

And of course, the adults get complimentary packs of any brand they want. Drug dealers always give you the first one for free.

The kids are clearly impressed with the whole thing.

Can’t allow that on my watch.

I open a pack of “lights,” light one up, and suck hard. I don’t smoke. The sounds of my lungs’ mortifying fight for air give the kids an idea what being clean and patriotic would be like.

Vicki doesn’t know whether to help me or scold me. Instead, she just smiles wanly and keeps handing out the cigarettes.

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From the February 6-12, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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