The Only Good Tobacco is No Tobacco at All
> 6/19/2006 11:24:29 AM

The cover story of yesterday's New York Times Magazine asked: If It's Good for Philip Morris, Can It Also Be Good for Public Health? In the piece, writer Joe Nocera introduces us to Steve Parrish, an executive of the holding company Altria, which owns the largest producer of cigarettes in the U.S., Philip Morris USA. Nocera, describing the present day Parrish, would have us believe that he is an executive that has seen the light and, in his heart of hearts, wants the best for the public. But as with the entirety of his story, Nocera's description of Parrish seems a half-truth, or maybe more accurate, a white washed version of some half-baked, half-truth. Writers know better than anyone, action defines character, and all of Parrish good-intentions amount to little in the grand narrative of "Big Tobacco."

The real issue, is that much of the story plays to the idea that any concessions made on the part of the tobacco industry would be advances for public health, except for the concessions that the tobacco industry actually want, they can't be that good, or could they, well it's better than nothing... Nocera presents this type of wishy-washy non-argument for much of the piece, obfuscating any discussion either way. He's clear on few things beyond the facts that A) cigarettes are horrible for your health, B) the tobacco industry knows that cigarettes are horrible for us, and C) tobacco companies will never stop selling cigarettes. Everything else in his often sprawling excursion amounts to little more than semantic positioning on the part of both tobacco advocates and detractors.

Unfortunately, and he had to know this as he worked, Nocera's aforementioned stipulations render the rest of his story rather pointless. What we do see is an often divided fight against tobacco use in the U.S. where many have given up fighting the hard fight in order to win small skirmishes. The problem is, however, that if you say, "Well, we can never stop smoking, so we might as well try..." you've already lost the only battle of any consequence. The facts regarding smoking are surprisingly concise and one sided. It kills. And when smoking doesn't kill, it causes various chronic health problems.

These facts have been around, and there is plenty of evidence that the public in general understands them. Cigarettes however, are highly addictive, and as Nocera does point out, tobacco companies like Philip Morris USA are ruthless in their promotion and marketing efforts to foster the habit that they know all too well to be tragically unhealthy. The only real way to solve the public health problems caused by cigarettes would be to completely eliminate them from the marketplace. Until that happens, we can stand around and ask whether Philip Morris would actually want to do something to improve public health till we're blue in the face. As long as cigarettes are on store shelves, we all know what the answer to that question is.

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