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The faces behind tobacco's deadly addiction

Federal health officials Wednesday announced plans to require cigarette packs and ads to carry bigger, much more prominent and graphic health warnings, including images of dead bodies, cancer patients and diseased lungs.

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 16, 2010

With apologies to Jonathan Swift, I have a modest proposal of my own. Instead of the government requiring cigarette packs and cartons to feature large warning labels designed to shock, sicken and otherwise make the point that smoking can kill - a toe tag on a corpse, for instance - a photo of Louis C. Camilleri would do quite nicely. He is the chairman and chief executive of Philip Morris International. Louis, stand up and take a bow.

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You, too, Richard Burrows, chairman of British American Tobacco, and Daniel M. Delen, chief executive of R.J. Reynolds. You gentlemen should also be known and celebrated for your genius at selling a product that sickens and kills. It is not anyone who can do that - indomitably selling and marketing when your customer base is huddled in doorways or too young to realize that a puff here and a puff there, and inevitably you are sharing a smoke with the grim reaper. These men do not get half the attention they deserve.

I have always wondered how anyone can work in the tobacco game. It's not that all the studies are not in and the verdict has not come down: Tobacco kills. Lung cancer will take about 157,000 American lives this year - good people, nice people, people like me, in fact, who started smoking to be cool and then found themselves addicted. I still miss the stuff, the rush, the virtually sexual release from lighting up, the nicotine triggering an onset of dopamine - focusing the mind, twittering the senses, occupying the hands, soothing, comforting, assuring. My friend. My loyal friend. My cigarettes. I fear you will betray me yet.

Now these gentlemen who suckered me into subsidizing a disease that might still kill - there is no statute of limitation on such foolishness - are out colonizing the rest of the world. The New York Times tells us that in Indonesia "cigarette ads run on TV and before movies; billboards dot the highways; companies appeal to children through concerts and sports events; cartoon characters adorn packages; and stores sell to children." Indonesia collects about $2.5 billion in annual revenue from Philip Morris International alone.

There is no good reason why the people responsible for selling the product should not be better known. When they visit their children's schools, kids ought to be able to point them out and say, "There's Mr. Pellegrini [Matteo Pellegrini, Philip Morris's president for Asia.]. He sells cigarettes to children." Or, "There's Mr. Orlowsky [Martin L. Orlowsky, CEO of Lorillard]. He makes cigarettes, which kill lots and lots of people." All these fellows ought to be recognizable at the mall and the club and, especially, when they are visiting anyone at the hospital for almost any disease. Heart, lung, stomach . . . even possibly Alzheimer's - there is almost no part of the body that cigarettes don't affect.

It is said that "behind every great fortune there is a crime." This is not always true nor is it always true that lying is essential to capitalism. It is merely useful and ordinary, so when a businessman touts his product as the very, very best, we forgive him his little lie or don't even notice it. The creeping, insidious amorality of conducting business might explain why we don't demand that cigarette executives account for what they do. After all, they sell the only legal product known to mankind that, if used as directed, might have you spitting blood in the long term and out of wind in the short. For this, they are well paid.

We former smokers are an intolerant lot. We are motivated by regret and rage. We have been suckered and sucker-punched, lied to repeatedly and fooled in our juvenile years into taking a course that we can only partly remedy. The lies of the cigarette industry are legion, and it thrives today because its customers are addicted. The industry should hold its board meetings in an alley.

So what do you have to say for yourself, Murray S. Kessler, president of Lorillard, and Paul Adams, chief executive of British American Tobacco, and Walton T. Carpenter, senior vice president for R.J. Reynolds? Why not have your faces on the cigarette packs so you can be identified, acknowledged, pointed out for what you do and how you make a living - so your kids can ask you why they see your picture when some fool teenager lights up in the back of the schoolyard? Gentlemen, say cheese - and put your face where you make your money.

cohenr@washpost.com


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