Barack Obama did it in the garden of the White House. Arnold Schwarzenegger kept a cigar tent in the courtyard of the Capitol in Sacramento. Both men had sufficient political clout to never allow photographers to catch them. The remaining millions of smokers in America, 21 percent of which are over 18 years old, have been standing in the pillories for years already.
A society of pariahs, frowned upon and scared, to be seen shivering at the corners of houses in the winter or penned into the glass boxes in airports, whose stench induces everyone who is not completely addicted to flee. A good thing — the U.S. government wants it this way in the name of public health.
For years the tobacco industry has played along with this game, sued and bleeding compensation for damages. Now, however, says an alliance of large producers — R.J. Reynolds, Lorilland, Commonwealth Brands, Liggett Group and Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company — it is enough. “Big tobacco” is fighting back with a counter-suit against the warnings on their products. "Never before in the United States have producers of a lawful product been required to use their own packaging and advertising to convey an emotionally-charged government message urging adult consumers to shun their products," they wrote in the suit.
One may deeply inhale this sentence of the tobacco lawyers and enjoy. What’s more, the U.S. government will hardly dispute its accuracy. Different from firearms, alcohol, violence glorifying videogames, race-baiting or self-imposed obesity, the enjoyment of tobacco and its dissemination in the U.S. does not enjoy the protection of free choice for mature citizens and free speech — a right that is nearly holy in the U.S. and also shields the most astonishing villainies.
No whiskey maker has to depict a drinker’s liver, no soda manufacturer has to warn about sugar. Since the end of June, the tobacco industry is obligated to conspicuously print nine variations of deterring motifs on its packaging.
The corpse with a stitched chest (“Smoking can kill you”) like the darkened gaping teeth together with lip ulcers (“Cigarettes cause cancer”) impressively illustrate a disgusting, possibly fatal habit. The premature baby in an incubator, distressed by its smoking mother, or the contrite man with an oxygen mask (after a heart attack) are among the more bearable variations.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius defended the warnings in June as “frank, honest and powerful.” The view of the authorities is that everything must be allowed in the fight against this vice. The tobacco plaintiffs, on the other hand, allege that the alternating overprints which respectively take up half the space on the front and back side of the packages, require an investment in millions of correspondingly flexible printers. More important than any of the other hardships, however, is the restriction of the right to sell and buy tobacco.
Now it is difficult to see Big Tobacco as the innocent victim of government disenfranchisement. For two years, an industry suit against the Family Smoking prevention and Tobacco Control Act has been pending. The law prohibits tobacco manufactures from sponsoring athletic competitions and cultural events. In addition, it is forbidden for them to give away their (habit-forming) products for advertising purposes.
The industry appealed after a judge declared the most important regulations to be legal. One is a stickler for details with “Big Tobacco.” So the lawyers complain in the new suit that the corpse with the stitched up chest is not authentic, but rather represented by that of an actor — undoubtedly the high point of his career. Also, the rosy lungs that are depicted next to the yellow and black smokers’ lungs are like overly fresh salami.
The U.S. armed forces, Hollywood and a few aging rock stars offer the last niches where smoking is considered cool. Paparazzi document film stars with cigarettes and the native Englishman Keith Richards, resident of Connecticut, would rather pay fines at every concert on U.S. tours of the Rolling Stones than give up puffing away on stage. Soldiers in the field are still permitted to smoke openly, perhaps because their lives are threatened by enemies anyway.
There were times when smoke-free zealots in the U.S. wanted to air out Hollywood history: the cigarette was supposed to be airbrushed out of the corner of Humphrey Bogart’s mouth and Steve McQueen forced to abstain. The furor of prohibition never quite cools down in America.
More and more nicotine-addicted users retreat to sniffing and chewing tobacco. R.J. Reynolds is currently testing a Camel chewing tobacco that dissolves like candy. “No second-hand smoke, no spitting and no cigarette butt litter,” raves Reynolds. Dangerous nonsense, counters the U.S. health department. The stuff causes addiction and cancer like its dirty, stinking sister products.