One smoke over the line 

In Christopher Buckley's novel "Thank You For Smoking," you get to meet a guy with a really hard job: Nick Naylor, spokesperson for the tobacco industry. Given all the cancer statistics, lawsuits and bad press, Nick's job is to try to make tobacco companies look, if not good, at least not so bad. You have to admire that kind of chutzpah, and in this book you can't help but be intrigued by Nick as you follow him through talk-show appearances, corporate politics and a marvelously psychotic attempt on his life. Buckley's satire of spin is brilliantly done, making you laugh while making you realize how someone is always, always, trying to sell you.

After reading something so funny about the smoking business, it's hard to look at those Philip Morris commercials in which they brag about donating tons of Kraft foods to war-torn eastern Europe and not see a sweating attempt to save face. In fact, I feel so sorry for Philip Morris that I've decided to keep up my cigarette habit just to help them out. Having botched another recent spin campaign, they need all the help they can get.

A recent Philip Morris study concluded that in the Czech Republic, the benefits from taxes on cigarettes were greater than the cost of "health care, lost working days and fires caused by cigarettes." The study further stated that early deaths caused by smoking had "indirect positive effects" such as reducing the government's expense on elder care.

Once word of the study got out, the company was made to apologize for its callousness. It's not really wrong, though. On the one hand, I have some friends who are dead and frankly, they're much cheaper to spend time with than the live ones, who are forever wanting sushi and imported beer. On the other, no one likes to think their lives are measured against the cost of a pension and judged not to be worth it.

The skins game

And you think your job is hard? Imagine the person who had to make this flub sound positive; it would be like standing next to a landfill and having to convince everyone that what they smell is a flower shop. Spin is an art that changes our lives in huge ways, from making us pay premiums for potato skins, which restaurants used to throw away 30 years ago, to making presidential candidates electable. People actually make a living turning trash into treasure that people will buy, or buy into.

But maybe they're onto something here. Maybe premature death really is a good thing. The spin of the Philip Morris study played up the advantages to the government of shorter-lived citizens, but helping the government is unlikely to stir any real emotions in anyone. Certainly there are personal advantages to an unexpectedly quick ending. Like these:

  • Earlier release from obligation to attend family holidays.
  • No more rent.
  • As ardent smoker Denis Leary noted, yes, smoking cuts 10 years off your life, "but they're the ones at the end," the ones no one wants anyway. A quick heart attack will relieve one of years of cholostomy bags, walkers and wondering why the kids don't call. (However, it also would deprive one of the evil joy of making those kids take care of you in your forgetful, slow-moving, diaper-wearing stage, and while it would be fun to make them suffer, there is compromise in everything.)
  • If you're dead, you don't have to get up and go to work.
  • Bills quit arriving in mailbox.
  • It definitively proves your discovery that it is impossible to return all of your phone calls, finish that report by Thursday or be concerned with arriving anywhere on time.
  • There might be a Heaven; you might get to go.
  • Exercise is a dim memory.
  • So is taking the car in to the mechanic.
  • Funny, but all those worries you had about dating don't seem like a big deal anymore.
  • Casual dress.

OK, so maybe I don't have such a bright future as a spin doctor. It must be my Brooklyn upbringing and a mother who insisted that people who were happy all the time would eventually be "taken away in the cookie truck." Besides, it all seems to smack a little too much of the ending of Monty Python's "Life of Brian," their parody of the life of Jesus, which concluded with a bunch of people hanging on the cross singing a happy song. But there was one line of that song that might benefit the cigarette spinners. "Always look on the bright side of death."

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