The Camel and the Marlboro Man

When my friends and I started smoking – in our teens in the 70’s – cigarette smoke was everywhere. Elevators, hospitals, restaurants, grocery stores, workplaces, you name it. My mother smoked through 4 pregnancies. I remember Sunday drives with both my parents smoking in the front seat while my little brother and I whined in the back. Still, I took up the habit as soon as I could get away with it. (No one carded at the gas station, they were just eager to make a sale to all the high school kids passing by.)
Back then Big Tobacco operated like devious, mad scientists, didn’t they? They polished up the image so you wouldn’t even consider that you were consuming a carcinogen. They commissioned scientists to research exactly how to make their product more addictive (yes, they did), and as soon as the results were in the project was terminated and the researchers were sworn to secrecy. Sugar,. That’s right. Just the right amount of sugar in the processing of the tobacco triggered the nicotine in just the right away to get all those new smokers hooked, making them life long customers.
I remember when my best friend – indeed, my first REAL friend in the whole world – was diagnosed with Stage 4 Lung Cancer. She’d had the biopsies, part of a lung removed but it was too late; the cancer had metastasized and was already in her blood stream. She did the chemo, the radiation, she went on a raw food diet, she made plans to go to Costa Rica or some other paradise that promised a holistic cure to her ailments.
She decided to sue R J Reynolds. Say what you will about smokers who sue tobacco companies; I understand the arguments completely. I’ve had those thoughts myself. “You knew it couldn’t be good for you.” “You could have stopped, but you didn’t.” “No one made you smoke! You chose to do that your self, when so many people chose not to.” On and on. But when my friend tried to justify her decision to me she said, “When we started smoking those things were everywhere! If you wanted to be cool you had to take up smoking in school. And when it became an addiction? It was more powerful than I was. I was an addict. And now it’s too late.”
She had the support of her lawyer husband, but even he knew it was a futile effort. I think he agreed to support her because it gave her some sort of feeling of empowerment. She had the lawyers videotape her testimony… just in case. She died before she could go to court in person. Her husband dropped the case after she passed.
The lawyers for R J Reynolds were like pit bulls, of course. They looked up everyone who had ever been in her life. Her psychotic mother, cousins, aunts, uncles, grade school friends, high school friends, abusive ex husbands, everyone. It mattered not to the lawyers for Big Tobacco that I lived nearly 2,000 miles away from where we had our first cigarettes. They hunted me down, found me in my tiny little blue house and knocked on my door.
When they identified themselves to me I told them to “Get the fuck off my property. I have no obligation to speak to you. I will not speak to you. Get away from my house.” They never came back. It was a minute victory that gave me no satisfaction. I had lost my best friend in the whole world because of shrewd and deceptive marketing, and the sale of a product the company knew would kill millions. They had secured enough profits to withstand plenty of nuisance lawsuits, after all. Nothing was going to break that camel’s back, or put the Marlboro Man in an early grave, right?

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