What I was struck by in the CNBC documentary “Cigarette Wars” was how a pair of tobacco farmers, when asked, “how do you feel about growing a deadly product?” just kept repeating the mantra, “it’s still a legal product.”
“Not everyone dies from smoking,” Tobacco farmer Todd Clark says, then quickly adds for properity’s sake: “although there’s nothing positive about smoking in any way shape or form.” You could see in their eyes (well, not in this one clip because the guy is wearing shades), that they didn’t really buy their own mantra. You could see in their eyes this is what they told themselves every night … so they could sleep.
I wrote down at least six times two tobacco farmers told CNBC, “it’s still a legal product.” Six times. Cigarette Wars is an hour-long documentary that looks at the growing of tobacco, smoking bans, cigarette marketing, smoking in Hollywood, cigarette smuggling and cigarette exports. It interviews smoking ban proponents, tobacco farmers and ad execs (but no one from the tobacco industry would speak on camera … acting like the legalized Mafia they are.) I was struck most by two things … the tobacco farmers and Stanton Glantz calling Hollywood directors who insert smoking into their movies “stupid and corrupt.” (Hear that James Cameron? Stanton Glantz just called you stupid and corrupt.).
Here’s why farmers still grow tobacco, knowing full well it’s a deadly product, knowing full well that the only way they’ll be able to sleep at night is telling themselves “it’s still a legal product.” Because it makes a lot of money. According to tobacco farmer Todd Clark, who seemed like a nice enough guy, tobacco can make bring in $1,500 an acre, versus only $300 an acre for corn or other products. So, if you have a 1,000-acre farm … $1,500 an acre is a lot of money to turn away. How does Todd Clark sleep at night? “I don’t think about the end result,” he told CNBC. He admits he has to emotionally separate himself from the damage his cash crop causes to society. (More on him later.).
The documentary then moves on smoking bans. One of the biggest proponents of smoking bans in the country is anti-smoking zealot Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York. His response to smoking bans putting farmers out of business? “There are very few growers out there … and a lot of America kids.” The documentary talked about cigarette smuggling … a bigger enterprise than I realized. One of the problems with state setting up their own cigarette taxes is the tax rate vary wildly from state to state. The taxes can be as low as 30 cents a pack in Virginia to $4.35 a pack in New York. So, it’s a lucrative business to buy up a shitload of cigarette cartons in Virginia, mark them up by $2 a pack and sell them in New York. Some of these schemes have helped fund the IRA and Hezbelloh.
I also enjoyed the segment on cigarettes and Hollywood as this is a personal fascination of mine. Tobacco companies paid movie studios millions of dollars between the 1970s and 1998, but as part of the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the companies are prohibited from paying for cigarette product placement in films. Yet, from 1998 to 2008, smoking scenes in movies actually went up. Why? Stupidity, said Stanton Glantz. Glantz is a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and has been on the frontlines of the fight against Big Tobacco for at least 30 years. He, and many others, are advocates for including an automatic R rating for inserting smoking scenes in movies. (I was dubious about this idea for a long time, but Hollywood has shown such an abject intransigence toward doing the right thing, that I now embrace the idea.) “Because directors are either stupid or corrupt,” Glantz said. The documentary specifically picks on James Cameron and “Avatar,” which had a completely gratuitous and pointless smoking scene with Sigourney Weaver (and it was a family film rated PG-13).
Glantz points out directors are just plain stupid to give a multi-billion dollar industry free advertising with getting a cent in return. One 21-year-old college student and heavy smoker pointed out that Hollywood taught him as a kid that “smoking is just badass.” There followed a montage of Hollywood stars smoking, including Irish douchebag Colin Farrell. 🙂 The “Truth” anti-smoking campaign is next featured. I love this campaign, though it threatens to die from lack of funding every year, because it doesn’t try to tell kids smoking is bad for them. A “Truth” spokeperson acknowledges that often the best way to get kids to do something is to tell them it’s bad for them. “Our goal to to disrupt their (Big Tobacco’s) business model.” Instead, “Truth” focuses on trying to get through to kids that corporations are manipulating them and turning them into their slaves (though nicotine addiction). Truth has been a wildly successful program despite their tiny budget. Even though they can no longer advertise on TV or radio, tobacco companies still spend more on marketing every day than Truth spends in an entire year.
The documentary moves on to global tobacco use. We can fight the tobacco industry all we want, but they are simply going to export their epidemic overseas. While the smoking rate in the U.S. is less than half of what it was 50 years ago, smoking is thriving and even on the increase in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. They are 320 million smokers in China, compared to 55 million in America. That’s a big tempting market for American tobacco companies (they mostly smoke Asian tobacco still in China, but believe me, Big Tobacco is trying to horn in … and China is aware of it, too. They aren’t stupid.)
I did like how the documentary ended. There seems to be hope for tobacco farmer Todd Clark. He’s diversified his farm into other products, such as cattle, chickens, other crops, because tobacco appears to be on the decline. He admitted that the “reality has sunken in more than it ever has before” that the days of American tobacco are on the wane, and that Clark is putting more energy into “having to do other things (grow other crops.).” “I’m excited about those other things,” Clark said.