Thank You For Smoking
Thank You For Smoking is one of the best satires I’ve seen in years. But I can only count a handful in the last decade. Bulworth, Team America, and South Park are the only really insightful ones that come to mind. Saved! and But I’m a Cheerleader weren’t bad. So, while this is a good movie, because satire matters to me I’m going to talk about where it fails and why. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. You should.
It’s a very timely movie. Government and private agencies are revising our cultural documents to excise smoking. If they succeed, then we’ll soon excise other parts of our history. The anti-smoking litigation model is already trickling down to fast food and other guilty pleasures.
We’re being asked to child-proof our culture. Rather than educating our children we’re dumbing down our world. I was disappointed in the movie, for example, that it didn’t more closely examine the claim that Joe Camel was somehow aimed at children. They mentioned cartoons in passing, but let the claim—that obviously these are for children just because they’re cartoons—slide.
The comic characters I enjoyed as a child were superheroes and violent cats. The Pink Panther confused me and I paid no attention to camels on billboards. Camel cartoons never appealed to children. Pretending that they did is just another example of the specious “for the children” argument that politicians revert to when they have nothing else going for them. That argument barely came under fire in this movie, and it should have. The inappropriate use of children as a rallying cry is often used to limit adult freedom.
The Merchants of Death
Thank You For Smoking is about a spokesperson for a tobacco company. Nick Naylor takes pride in his work and in one sense he does a good job. In another very important sense, however, he is a failure. Naylor manages to discredit studies showing tobacco is unhealthy, and he manages to fend off anti-tobacco legislation. But he does so through smoke and mirrors. He doesn’t necessarily lie, but he is dishonest.
This is one aspect of the tobacco debate that the movie handles well. Both sides of the tobacco lobbies use misdirection. One appears to care less about health than about being anti-tobacco; the other cares nothing about freedom but about image. That makes for short-term pro-tobacco arguments that will backfire in the long run.
Nick Naylor hangs with a trio of lobbyists called the Merchants of Death. Along with Nick there’s an Alcohol lobbyist and a Firearms lobbyist. It’s a joke on the federal classification of these three things: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (nowadays it also includes Explosives) handles enforcement of federal laws regarding these three Great American Pastimes.
The Merchants are mostly a way to let Naylor discuss his work with peers. To some extent it is also a caricature of what anti- forces think “death” lobbies are like.
Unfortunately, this aspect—that the lobbies as presented in the film are unreal—is shunted to the background in the film. It just isn’t developed enough to be part of the satire. What it ends up doing is pretending a sort of moral equivalence that doesn’t exist except in the minds of lobbyists. It’s an example, I suspect, of the difference between what a book can do and what a movie can do. I haven’t read the book, but I suspect it went into more satirical detail about the Merchants of Death than the movie could.
The movie writers probably found the name “Merchants of Death” too cool to jettison completely, leaving the movie with a rather flat death wing in the other two parts of the Bureau. It ends up missing a prime choice for satire: that one of those three groups is not like the others. In the real world, tobacco and alcohol are represented by trade groups. The self-defense lobby is represented by a consumer group. It is driven by consumers and voters. The movie glosses over this completely; they make all of the groups trade groups and move the National Rifle Association logo over to the alcohol trade group.
This wasted a perfect opportunity to skewer pro-tobacco lobbyists and image-makers. Whether you agree or disagree with their stand on firearms and self-defense, the NRA is an example of a lobby group done right: they get on the ground, identify places where they are right, and fight on that ground on behalf of the voters who are their members.
Adding this might have made the satire less balanced, but satire doesn’t need to be balanced. It needs to be right. Good satire will almost never be “balanced” in the sense of a news story.
Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms
The tobacco industry is an example of a lobby group done all wrong. It would be difficult to find an industry that so collectively chooses to trade the profits of future generations of stockholders over the profits of the current generation.
They argue where they are wrong and refuse to consistently argue where they are right. Every once in a while they make a half-hearted attempt at fighting back where they’re right, but it never lasts. My local bar has a Camel sign that says:
No Smoking. Don’t think about it too much and the loss of our other personal freedoms will be easier to handle.
Ironically, it—a sign that says don’t smoke— also contains the surgeon general’s warning.
But I literally can’t find that phrase anywhere on the net. If that sign is from R. J. Reynolds and is not a satire, they must have distributed them and then immediately backed down.
The worst part about tobacco lies is that the environment those lies create makes it easier to start campaigns against french fries, hamburgers, and ice cream. With the fiasco of alcohol prohibition burned into our national consciousness, it should have been impossible for us to do something so counter-productive again. Tobacco company lies have restored to some extent the appeal of prohibition.
Without the tobacco industry’s egregious missteps, this movie could not have been made. Nobody wants to return to the violence and hypocrisy of alcohol prohibition. There was a half-hearted attempt to make it sound like the alcohol industry takes a hit when fetal alcohol syndrome gets reported on, but it slid by and was never developed. There’s a good reason: nobody cares.
If alcohol is in any danger, it is because of changing social mores, the kind of changes described in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The only anti-alcohol group is MADD, and they’re not so much anti-alcohol as anti-alcohol consumer. The alcohol industry doesn’t even seem to care about them. The only people who really make noise about groups like MADD are driving consumer groups such as the National Motorists Association. Alcohol isn’t currently in any danger, and the industry knows it.
Alcohol prohibition was never mentioned in the movie. My guess is that even mentioning alcohol prohibition would have made the movie “unbalanced”, because alcohol prohibition is so easily extrapolated to tobacco prohibition. And without alcohol, they’d have to move down to fast food, and that would put the punch line before the joke.
Satire doesn’t need to be balanced. It needs to be right. That’s the big mistake this movie makes. Satire without a strong grounding in truth is just a poor joke. Charles Paul Freund, for example, does a good job in Rated “R” for Smoking. After discovering that Stanton Glantz, head of Smoke Free Movies, wants to make all movies with smoking be rated R unless the movie shows “realistic” results such as having smoking “kill half the characters”, James Bond and a mobster friend fall to the ground laughing.
Bond and the mobster helped each other to their feet. As they relit their cigars, the mobster slapped Bond on the back. “Let me tell you a secret about Stanton Glantz,” the mobster said. “I quite like heem.”
“Like him?” asked a surprised Bond. “Why is that?”
“Because before he’s finished,” came the answer, “everyone will be buying their tobacco from me.”
That’s not balanced. That’s truth.
Erasing the past
When Nick Naylor says that knowing how to argue means you aren’t wrong, he’s wrong. Winning the argument emotionally or through debate tricks might win in the short term, but it fosters an environment where facts don’t matter. It creates an environment where short-term emotionalism wins, where “for the children” arguments can even justify imprisoning parents for pot smoking and taking their children away. Eventually it will bring about a violent tobacco black market that dwarfs the violence caused by alcohol prohibition.
This is a debate we are about to have with ourselves in areas other than tobacco. Do we punish ourselves for making poor choices about what we eat? Do we tax ice cream and hamburgers more than asparagus and broccoli? Do we sue McDonald’s because they aren’t Whole Foods? Do we kick them out of town in favor of Whole Foods?
The American Medical Association is already pushing for a tax on soft drinks, for example. While I’m not aware of any congressman who has called for excising cigarettes out of classic movies yet, some are moving in that direction. Senator John Ensign wants cigarettes in a movie to trigger an automatic “R” rating for that movie. States are asking Hollywood to cut smoking out of new films. “We're not saying any law has been broken,” said the California Attorney General’s office. “We’re just asking out of a concern for the health of our kids.”
Some companies are excising smokers without waiting for the government to tell them to. Publishers are chopping fingers to remove cigarettes from old photos. They’re changing our history to pretend that authors and musicians did not smoke.
Ringo Starr had his fingers cut off on one album. The United States Postal Service carefully removes smoking from old photographs that they turn into stamps: they’ve removed smokes from blues guitarist Robert Johnson and from painter Jackson Pollock. If you want to watch old Disney cartoons as they were originally displayed, you can’t: Disney has removed the offending smokes. Turner Broadcasting is doing the same to old Hanna-Barbera cartoons.
If it sounds like a page from dystopian fiction, it is. William Gibson’s 1994 Virtual Light sets 2005 as the year in which tobacco will be illegal again, and the government is trying to make convertibles illegal—they contribute to skin cancer.
Arthur C. Clarke’s 1991 novel, The Ghost from the Grand Banks, sets up 2012 as the year by which we’ll automatically edit old films to excise smoking and other bad habits of the past.
Connie Willis’s 1995 Remake features a main character who takes on the job of removing all references to “Addictive Substances” from classic movies—such as removing alcohol from Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story. In her story, this all has happened by roughly 2015.
Doomed to repeat the past?
American history was rewritten. The famous painting of George Washington, glass in hand, celebrating the founding of the Union was altered: the glass disappeared and the decanter on the table was hidden under a hat.
Thank You For Smoking is a funny movie, and while it could have been great it is still good satire. Rent it or buy it if you haven’t seen it already.