Franzen, Sifting the Ashes_Essay_Sample

Franzen, Sifting the Ashes_Essay_Sample - IGARETTES are the...

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Unformatted text preview: IGARETTES are the last thing in the world I want to think about. I don’t consider myself a smoker, don’t identify with the forty—six million Americans who have the habit. I dislike the smell of smoke and the invasion of nasal privacy it represents. Bars and restaurants with a stylish profile—with a clientele whose exclusivity depends in part on the toxic clouds with which it shields itself—have started to disgust me. I’ve been gassed in hotel rooms where smok— ers stayed the night before and gassed in public bathrooms where men use the nasty, body—odorish Winston as a laxa— tive. (“Winston tastes bad / Like the one I just had” runs the grammatically unimpeachable parody from my childhood.) Some days in New York it seems as if two—thirds of the peo— ple on the sidewalk, in the swirls of car exhaust, are carrying lighted cigarettes; I maneuver constantly to stay upwind. To stem the emissions of downstairs neighbors, I’ve used a caulking gun to seal gaps between the floorboards and base boards in my apartment. The first casino I ever went to, in Nevada, was a vision of damnation: row upon row of middle aged women with foot—long faces puffing on foot—long Kenls and compulsively feeding silver dollars to the slots. When someone tells me that cigarettes are sexy, I think of Nevada. When I see an actress or actor drag deeply in a movie, I imagine the pyrenes and phenols ravaging the tender epithci lial cells and hardworking cilia of their bronchi, the monoxi ide and cyanide binding to their hemoglobin, the heaving and straining of their chemically panicked hearts. Cigarettes are a distillation of a more general paranoia that besets our culture, the awful knowledge of our bodies’ fragility in a world oi molecular hazards. They scare the hell out of me. Because I’m capable of hating almost every attribute 01 cigarettes (let’s not even talk about cigars), and because I smoked what I believed was my last cigarette five years ago and have never owned an ashtray, it’s easy for me to think of myself as nicotine—free. But if the man who bears my name is not a smoker, then why is there again a box fan for exhausl purposes in his living—room window? Why, at the end 0! every workday, is there a small collection of cigarette butts in the saucer on the table by this fan? Cigarettes were the ultimate taboo in the culturally con servative household I grew up in——more fraught, even, than sex or drugs. The year before I was born, my mother’s father died of lung cancer. He’d taken up cigarettes as a soldier in the First World War and smoked heavily all his life. Every one who met my grandfather seems to have loved him, and however much I may sneer at our country’s obsession with health—at the elevation of fitness to godliness and of sheci longevity to a mark of divine favor—the fact remains that ii 144 JONATHAN FRANZEN my grandfather hadn’t smoked I might have had the chance lo know him. My mother still speaks of cigarettes with loathing. I secretly started smoking them myself in college, perhaps in part because she hated them, and as the years went by I developed a fear of exposure very similar, I’m convinced, to a gay man’s fear of coming out to his parents. My mother had created my body out of hers, after all. What rejection of par— entage could be more extreme than deliberately poisoning that body? To come out is to announce: this is who I am, this is my identity. The curious thing about “smoker” as a label of identity, though, is its mutability. I could decide tomorrow not to be one anymore. So why not pretend not to be one today? To take control of their lives, people tell themselves stories about the person they want to be. It’s the special priv— ilege of the smoker, who at times feels so strongly the resolve in quit that it’s as if he’d quit already, to be given irrefutable evidence that these stories aren’t necessarily true: here are the butts in the ashtray, here is the smell in the hair. As a smoker, then, I’ve come to distrust not only my sto— ries about myself but all narratives that pretend to unambigu— ous moral significance. And it happens that in recent months Americans have been subjected to just such a narrative in the daily press, as “secret” documents shed light on the machi— nations of Big Tobacco, industry scientists step forward to indict their former employers, nine states and a consortium of sixty law firms launch massive liability suits, and the Food and Drug Administration undertakes to regulate cigarettes as nicotine—delivery devices. The prevailing liberal view that Big Tobacco is Evil with a capital E is summed up in the 'Ii'mes’s review of Richard Kluger’s excellent new history of the tobacco industry, Ashes to Ashes. Chiding Kluger for (of SIFTING THE ASHES 145 all things) his “objectivity” and “impartiality,” Christopher Lehmann—Haupt suggests that the cigarette business is on a moral par with slavery and the Holocaust. Kluger himself, impartial or not, repeatedly links the word “angels” with antismoking activists. In the introduction to his book he offers a stark pair of options: either cigarette manufacturers are “businessmen basically like any other” or they’re “moral lepers preying on the ignorant, the miserable, the emotion— ally vulnerable, and the genetically susceptible.” My discomfort with these dichotomies may reflect the fact that, unlike Lehmann—Haupt, I have yet to kick the habit. But in no national debate do I feel more out of synch with the mainstream. For all that I distrust American indus— try, and especially an industry that’s vigorously engaged in buying congressmen, some part of me insists on rooting for tobacco. I flinch as I force myself to read the latest health news: SMOKERS MORE LIKELY TO BEAR RETARDED BABIES, STUDY SAYS. I pounce on particularly choice collisions of metaphor and melodrama, such as this one from the Timex: “The affidavits are the latest in a string of blows that have undermined the air of invincibility that once cloaked the $45 billion tobacco industry, which faces a deluge of lawsuits.” My sympathy with cohorts who smoke disproportionately— blue—collar workers, African—Americans, writers and artists, alienated teens, the mentally ill—expands to include the companies that supply them with cigarettes. I think: We’re all underdogs now. Wartime is a time of lies, I tell myself, and the biggest lie of the cigarette wars is that the moral equation can be reduced to ones and zeroes. Or have I, too, been corrupted by the weed? I46 JONATHAN FRANZEN l TOOK UP SMOKING as a student in Germany in the dark years of the early eighties. Ronald Reagan had recently made his “evil empire” speech, and Jonathan Schell was publish— ing The Fate oftbe Earth. The word in Berlin was that if you woke up to an undestroyed world 011 Saturday morning you were safe for another week; the assumption was that NATO was at its sleepiest late on Friday nights, that Warsaw Pact forces would choose those hours to come pouring through the Fulda Gap, and that NATO would have to go ballistic to repel them. Since I rated my chances of surviving the decade at fifty—fifty, the additional risk posed by smoking seemed negligible. Indeed, there was something invitingly apoca— lyptic about cigarettes. The nightmare of nuclear prolif— eration had a counterpart in the way cigarettes—anonymous, death—bearing, missilelike cylinders—proliferated in my life. Cigarettes are a fixture of modern warfare, the soldier’s best friend, and, at a time when a likely theater of war was my own living room, smoking became a symbol of my helpless civilian participation in the Cold War. Among the anxieties best suited to containment by cigarettes is, paradoxically, the fear of dying. What serious smoker hasn’t felt the surge of panic at the thought of lung cancer and immediately lighted up to beat the panic down? (It’s a Cold War logic: we’re afraid of nuclear weapons, so let’s build even more of them.) Death is a severing of the connection between self and world, and, since the self can’t imagine not existing, perhaps what’s really scary about the prospect of dying is not the extinguishment of my con— sciousness but the extinguishment of the world. The fear of a global nuclear holocaust was thus functionally identical to my private fear of death. And the potential deadliness of cigarettes was comforting because it allowed me, in effect, to SIFTING THE ASHES 147 become familiar with apocalypse, to acquaint myself with tln- contours of its terrors, to make the world’s potential deth less strange and so a little less threatening. Time stops [In the duration of a cigarette: when you’re smoking, you‘i'c acutely present to yourself; you step outside the unConsciour. forward rush of life. This is why the condemned are allowwl a final cigarette, this is why (or so the story goes) gentlelncu in evening dress stood puffing at the rail as the Titanic went down: it’s a lot easier to leave the world if you’re certain you’ve really been in it. As Goethe writes in Faust, “Presencc is our duty, be it only a moment.” The cigarette is famously the herald of the modern, tlu- boon companion of industrial capitalism and high—density urbanism. Crowds, hyperkinesis, mass production, nuiuli ingly boring labor, and social upheaval all have correla tives in the cigarette. The sheer number of individual unilu consumed surely dwarfs that of any other manufacturcil consumer product. “Short, snappy, easily attempted, easily completed or just as easily discarded before completion,” {In- Time: wrote in a 1925 editorial that Richard Kluger quotes, “the cigarette is the symbol of a machine age in which 111(- ultimate cogs and wheels and levers are human nerves.” ll self the product of a mechanical roller called the Bonsaclx machine, the cigarette served as an opiate for assembly-lini- workers, breaking up into manageable units long days ol grinding sameness. For women, the Atlantic Monthly nolcd in 1916, the cigarette was “the symbol of emancipation, llH‘ temporary substitute for the ballot.” Altogether, it’s impos sible to imagine the twentieth century without cigarettes. They show up with Zeliglike ubiquity in old photograpli‘. and newsreels, so devoid of individuality as hardly to lu‘ noticeable and yet, once noticed, utterly strange. I48 JONATHAN FRANZEN Kluger’s history of the cigarette business reads like a his— loiy of American business in general. An industry that in 1880 was splintered into hundreds of small, family—owned concerns had by 1900 come under the control of one man, James Buchanan Duke, who by pioneering the use of the Bonsack roller and reinvesting a huge portion of his revenues in advertising, and then by alternately employing the stick of price wars and the carrot of attractive buyout offers, built his American Tobacco Company into the equivalent of Standard Oil or Carnegie Steel. Like his fellow monopolists, Duke eventually ran afoul of the trustbusters, and in 191 1 the Su— prcme Court ordered the breakup of American. The result— in g oligopoly immediately brought out new brands—Camel, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield and Marlborough—that have vied for market share ever since. To American retailers, the cigarette was the perfect commodity, a staple that generated large profits on a small investment in shelf space and inven— tory; cigarettes, Kluger notes, “were lightweight and durably packed, rarely spoiled, were hard to steal since they were usually sold from behind the counter, underwent few price changes, and required almost no selling effort.” Since every brand tasted pretty much the same, tobacco companies learned early to situate themselves at the cut— Iing edge of advertising. In the twenties, American Tobacco offered five free cartons of Lucky Strike (“it’s toasted”) to any doctor who would endorse it, and then launched a campaign that claimed “20,679 Physicians Say Luckies Are Less Irritating”; American was also the first company to target weight—conscious women (“When tempted to over-indulge, reach for a Lucky instead”). The industry pioneered the celebrity endorsement (tennis star Bill Til— ilens “I’ve smoked Camels for years, and I never tire of their SIFTING THE ASHES I49 smooth, rich taste”), radio sponsorship (Arthur Godfrey: “I smoked two or three packs of these things [Chesterfieldsl every day—I feel pretty good”), assaultive outdoor adverlis ing (the most famous was the “I’d Walk a Mile for a Camcl" billboard in Times Square, which for twenty—five years l)l(‘\\ giant smoke rings), and, finally, the sponsorship of telcvi sion shows like Candid Camera and I Love Lucy. The bril liant TV commercials made for Philip Morris—Benson & Hedges smokers whose hundred—millimeter cigarettes wcrv crushed by elevator doors; faux—hand—cranked footage oi chambermaids sneaking smokes to the tune of “You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby”—were vital entertainmcnl-. of my childhood. I remember, too, the chanted words “Silva Thins, Silva Thins,” the mantra for a short-lived American Tobacco product that wooed the female demographic will: such appalling copy as “Cigarettes are like girls, the bowl ones are thin and rich.” The most successful campaign of all, of course, was for the Marlboro, an upscale cigarette for ladies that Philip Morris reintroduced in 1954 in a filtered version for [In- mainstream. Like all modern products, the new Marlboro was intensively designed. The tobacco blend was strength ened so as to survive the muting of a filter, the “flip—top” him was introduced to the national vocabulary, the color red was. chosen to signal strong flavor, and the graphics underwcni endless tinkering before the final look, including a fake heral dic crest with the motto Vem', vidi, vici, was settled on; thCl't‘ was even market—testing in four cities to decide the color ol the filter. It was in Leo Burnett’s ad campaign for Marlboro, however, that the real genius lay. The key to its success was its transparency. Place a lone ranch hand against a backdrop of buttes at sunset, and just about every positive association 15!] JONATHAN FRANZEN .l cigarette can carry is in the picture: rugged individualism, masculine sexuality, escape from an urban modernity, strong llavors, the living of life intensely. The Marlboro marks our commercial culture’s passage from an age of promises to an a gc of pleasant, empty dreams. It’s no great surprise that a company smart enough to advertise as well as this ascended, in just three decades, to a position of hegemony in the industry. Kluger’s account of Ihc triumph of Philip Morris is the kind of thing that busi— ness schools have their students read for edification and in- spiration: to succeed as an American corporation, the lesson might be, do exactly what Philip Morris did. Concentrate on products with the highest profit margin. Design new prod— ucts carefully, then get behind them and push bard. Use your excess cash to diversify into businesses structurally similar to your own. Be a meritocracy. Bid preemptively. Avoid crip— pling debt. Patiently build your overseas markets. Never scruple to gouge your customers when you see the opportu— nil y. Let your lawyers attack your critics. Be classy—sponsor T176 Mababarata. Defy conventional morality. Never forget that your primary fealty is to your stockholders. While its chief competitor, R. J. Reynolds, was grow— ini,r logy and inbred down in Winston—Salem—sinking into lhc low—margin discount—cigarette business, diversifying (lisastrously, and nearly drowning in debt after its leveraged buyout by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts 8: Company—Philip Morris was becoming the global leader in the cigarette in— dustry and one of the most profitable corporations in the world. By the early nineties, its share of the domestic non— iliscount—cigarette market was eighty percent. The value of a share of Philip Morris stock increased by a factor of 192 between 1966 and 1989. Healthy, wealthy, and wise the man SIFTING THE ASHES 151 who quit smoking in ’64 and put his cigarette money inlo Philip Morris common. The company’s spectacular success is all the more re markable for having occurred in the decades when the sci entific case against cigarettes was becoming overwhelming With the possible exception of the hydrogen bomb, nothing: in modernity is more generative of paradox than cigarettes. Thus, in 1955, when the Federal Trade Commission souglu to curb misleading advertising by banning the publication of tar and nicotine levels, the ruling proved to be a boon lo the industry, enabling it to advertise filter cigarettes for tln-u implicit safety even as it raised the toxic yields to compensniv for the filters. So it went with the 1965 law requiring warning labels on cigarette packs, which preempted potentially mm 1‘ stringent state and local regulation and provided a pricclw. shield against future liability suits. So it went, too, with lll<‘ 1971 congressional ban on broadcast cigarette advertising, which saved the industry millions of dollars, effectively frow- out potential new competitors by denying them the broaden-.1 platform, and put an end to the devastating antismoking :qu then being broadcast under the fairness doctrine. Even SlH'lI left—handed regulation as the 1982 increase in the federal m cise tax benefited the industry, which used the tax as a scrwn for a series of price increases, doubling the price per pack “I a decade, and invested the windfall in diversification. Ewn forward step taken by government to regulate smoking~ lln broadcast ban, the ban on in—flight smoking, the weltcr ol local bans on smoking in public places—moved cigarettes .I step further back from the consciousness of nonsmoking vol ers. The result, given the political power of tobacco—gum my states, has been the specific exemption of cigarettes from lln 152 JONATHAN FRANZEN Fair Labeling and Packaging Act of 1966, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, the Consumer Product Safety Act of 1972, and the Toxic Substances Act of 1976. In the industry’s defense in liability suits, the paradox can be seen in its purest form: because no plaintiff can claim ignorance of tobacco’s ll:lZ31'dS—l.€., precisely became the cigarette is the most n0— loriously lethal product in America—its manufacturers can— not be held negligent for selling it. Small wonder that until liiggett broke ranks this spring no cigarette maker had ever paid a penny in civil damages. Now, however, the age of paradox may be coming to an end. As the nation dismantles its missiles, its attention turns lo cigarettes. The wall of secrecy that protected the indus— try is coming down as surely as the Berlin Wall did. The Third Wave is upon us, threatening to extinguish all that is quintessentially modern. It hardly seems an accident that the United States, which is leading the way into the information age, is also in the forefront of the war on cigarettes. Unlike lhc nations of Europe, which have taken a more pragmatic approach to the smoking problem, taxing cigarettes at rates as high as five dollars a pack, the antismoking forces in this country bring to the battle a puritanical zeal. We need a new Evil Empire, and Big Tobacco fills the bill. ‘l‘llE ARGUMENT for equating the tobacco industry with slave lraders and the Third Reich goes like this: because nearly half a million Americans 3 year die prematurely as a direct consequence of smoking, the makers of cigarettes are guilty of mass murder. The obvious difficulty with the argument is lhnt the tobacco industry has never physically forced anyone SIFTING THE ASHES 153 to smoke a cigarette. To speak of “killing” people, therefom one has to posit more subtle forms of coercion. These fall into three categories. First, by publicly denying a truth well known to its scientists, which was that smokers were in mortal peril, the industry conspired to perpetrate a V351 and deadly fraud. Second, by luring impressionable children into a habit very difficult to break, the industry effectively “forced” its products on people before they had developed full adult powers of resistance. Finally, by making available and attractive a product that it knew to be addictive, and by manipulating nicotine levels, the industry willfully exposed the public to a force (addiction) with the power to kill. A “shocking” collection of “secret” industry documents, which was released by a disgruntled employee of Brown & Williamson and has now been published as The Cigare/It' Papers, makes it clear that Big Tobacco has known for (lt- cades that cigarettes are lethal and addictive and has done everything in its power to suppress and deny that knowl edge. The Cigarette Papers and other recent disclosures haw prompted the Justice Department to pursue perjury chargm against various industry executives, and they may provide the plaintiffs now suing the industry with positive proof of tor tious fraud. In no way, though, are the disclosures shocking. How could anyone who noticed that different brands haw different (but consistent) nicotine levels fail to conclude tan the industry can and does control the dosage? What reason able person could have believed that the industry’s public avowals of “doubt” about the deadliness of its products were anything but obligatory, ceremonial lies? If researchers un earthed a secret document proving that Bill Clinton inhaled, would we be shocked? When industry spokesmen impugn 154 JONATHAN FRANZEN the integrity of the Surgeon General and persist in deny— ing the undeniable, they’re guilty not so much of fraud as of sounding (to borrow the word of one executive quoted by Kluger) “Neanderthal.” “The simple truth,” Kluger writes, “was that the cigarette makers were getting richer and richer as the scientific find— ings against them piled higher and higher, and before any— one fully grasped the situation, the choice seemed to have narrowed to abject confession and surrender to the health advocates or steadfast denial and rationalization.” In the early fifties, when epidemiological studies first demonstrated the link between smoking and lung cancer, cigarette execu— tives did indeed have the option of simply liquidating their businesses and finding other work. But many of these execu— tives came from families that had been respectably trading in tobacco for decades, and most of them appear to have been heavy smokers themselves; unlike the typical heroin whole— saler, they willingly ran the same risks they imposed on their customers. Because they were corporate officers, moreover, their ultimate allegiance was to their stockholders. If simply having stayed in business constitutes guilt, then the circle of those who share this guilt must be expanded to include every individual who held stock in a tobacco company after 1964, either directly or through a pension fund, a mutual fund, or a university endowment. We might also toss in ev- cry drugstore and supermarket that sold cigarettes and every publication that carried ads for them; the Surgeon General’s warning, after all, was there for everyone to see. Once the companies made the decision to stay in busi— ness, it was only a matter of time before the lawyers took over. Nothing emerges from Ashes to Asher more clearly than SlFTING THE ASHES 155 the deforming influence of legal counsel on the actions ol the industry. Many industry scientists and some executiVex appear to have genuinely wished both to produce a sale: cigarette and to acknowledge frankly the known risks 0| smoking. But the industry’s attempts to do good were no lc5s paradoxically self—defeating than the government’s attempts at regulation. When executives in R&D proposed that lil tered cigarettes and reduced tar and nicotine yields be mar keted as a potential benefit to public health, in—house lawyers objected that calling one brand “safe” or “safer” constituted an admission that other brands were hazardous and thus ex posed the maker to liability claims. Likewise, after Liggen had spent millions of dollars developing a substantially less carcinogenic “palladium cigarette” in the seventies, it was treated like contagion by the company’s lawyers. Marketing it was bad from a liability standpoint, and developing it and then not marketing it was even worse, because the company could then be sued for negligently failing to introduce it. Epic, as the new cigarette was called, was ultimately smolh ered in legal paper. Kluger describes an industry in which lawyerly paranoia quickly metastasized into every vital organ. Lawyers coached the executives appearing before congressional committees, oversaw the woefully self—serving “independent” research the industry sponsored, and made sure that all paperworl connected with studies of addiction or cancer was funneled through outside counsel so that it could be protected undei the attorney—client privilege. The result was a weird repli cation of the dual contradictory narratives with which I, as a smoker, explain my life: a true story submerged benealli a utilitarian fiction. One longtime Philip Morris executive quoted by Kluger sums it up like this: 156 JONATHAN FRANZEN There was a conflict in the company between science and the law that’s never been resolved . . . and so we go through this ritual dance—what’s “proven” and what isn’t, what’s causal and what’s just an associationdand the lawyers’ answer is, “Let’s stonewall.” . . . If Helmut Wakeham [head of R&DJ had run things, I think there would have been some admis— sions. But he was outflanked by the lawyers . . . who . . . were saying, in effect, “My God, you can’t make that admission” without risking liability actions against the company. So there was no cohesive plan—when critics of the industry speak of a “conspiracy,” they give the companies far too much credit. In the inverted moral universe of a tobacco liability trial, every honest or anguished statement by an executive is used to prove the defendants’ guilt, while every calculated dodge is used to support their innocence. There’s something very wrong here; but absent a demonstration that Americans ac— wally swallowed the industry’s lies it’s far from clear that this something qualifies as murder. More damning are recent reports of the industry’s re— eruitment of underage smokers. Lorrilard representatives have been observed handing out free Newports to kids in Washington, D.C.; Philip]. Hilts, in his book Smoke Screen, presents evidence that R. J. Reynolds deliberately placed special promotional displays in stores and kiosks known to lie high—school hangouts; and the cuddly, penis—faced Joe (Jamel must rank as one of the most disgusting apparitions ever to appear on our cultural landscape. Tobacco compa— nies claim that they are merely vying for market share in the vital eighteen—to—twenty—four age group, but internal indus— try documents described by Hilts suggest that at least one (Ianadian company has in fact studied how to target entry— SIFTING THE ASHES 157 level smokers as young as twelve. (According to Hilts, studio. have shown that eighty—nine percent of today’s adult smolt ers picked up the habit before the age of nineteen.) In the opinion of antitobacco activists, cigarette advertising hoole. young customers by proffering images of carefree, attractiw adult smokers while failing to hint at the havoc that smoking», wreaks. By the time young smokers are old enough to appu- ciate the fact of mortality, they’re hopelessly addicted. Although the idea that a manufacturer might willingh stress the downside of its products is absurd—imagine Nl(‘ Donald’s airing images of obesity or clogged arteries—I haw no doubt that the tobacco industry aims its ads at young Americans. I do doubt, though, whether these ads cause an appreciable number of children to start smoking. The insc cure or alienated teen who lights up for the first time is re sponding to peer pressure or to the example of grownup rolt- models—movie villains, rock stars, supermodels. At most, the industry’s ads function as an assurance that smoking is a socially acceptable grownup activity. For that reason alone, they should probably be banned or more tightly controlled. just as cigarette—vending machines should be outlawed. Mosl people who start smoking end up regretting it, and so any policy that reduces the number of starters is laudable. That cigarettes innately appeal to teenagers, however, is hardly the fault of the manufacturers. In recent weeks I’ve noticed several antitobacco newspaper ads that offer, for its shock value, the image of a preadolescent girl holding a ciga rette. The models are obviously not real smokers, yet despite their phoniness they’re utterly sexualized by their cigarettes. The horror of underage smoking veils a horror of teen and preteen sexuality, and one of the biggest pleasant empty dreams being pushed these days by Madison Avenue is that 158 JONATHAN FRANZEN a child is innocent until his or her eighteenth birthday. The truth is that without firm parental guidance teenagers make all sorts of irrevocable decisions before they’re old enough to appreciate the consequences——they drop out of school, they get pregnant, they major in sociology. What they want most of all is to sample the pleasures of adulthood, like sex or booze or cigarettes. To impute to cigarette advertising a “predatory” power is to admit that parents now have less control over the moral education of their children than the commercial culture has. Here again I suspect that the tobacco industry is being scapegoated—made to bear the brunt of a more general societal rage at the displacement of the family by the corporation. The final argument for the moral culpability of Big T0- hacco is that addiction is a form of coercion. Nicotine is a toxin whose ingestion causes the smoker’s brain to change its chemistry in defense. Once those changes have occurred, the smoker must continue to consume nicotine on a regular schedule in order to maintain the new chemical balance. 'lol)acco companies are well aware of all this, and an attor— ney cited by Kluger summarizes the legal case for coercion as follows: “You addicted me, and you knew it was addicting, and now you say it’s my fault.” As Kluger goes on to point out, though, the argument has many flaws. Older even than the common knowledge that smoking causes cancer, for example, is the knowledge that smoking is a tough habit to break. Human tolerance of nicotine varies widely, more— over, and the industry has long offered an array of brands with ultra—low doses. Finally, no addiction is unconquerable: millions of Americans quit every year. When a smoker says he wants to quit but can’t, what he’s really saying is, “I want to quit but I want even more not to suffer the agony of SIFTING THE ASHES 159 withdrawal.” To argue otherwise is to jettison any lingering notion of personal responsibility. If nicotine addiction were purely physical, quitting WOlll(l be relatively easy, because the acute withdrawal symptoms, the physical cravings, rarely last more than a few weeks. At the time I myself quit, six years ago, I was able to stay nicotine-free for weeks at a time, and even when I was work ing I seldom smoked more than a few ultra—lights a day. Bill on the day I decided that the cigarette I’d had the day before was my last, I was absolutely flattened. A month passed in which I was too agitated to read a book, too fuzzy—headed even to focus on a newspaper. Another month went by be fore I could summon the concentration to write so much as a casual letter to a friend. If I’d had a job at the time, or a family to take care of, I might have hardly noticed the psy chological withdrawal. But as it happened nothing much was going on in my life. “Do you smoke?” Lady Bracknell asks Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, and when he admits that he does she replies, “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind.” There’s no simple, universal reason why people smoke. but there’s one thing I’m sure of: they don’t do it because they’re slaves to nicotine. My best guess about my own at traction to the habit is that I belong to a class of people whose lives are insufficiently structured. The mentally ill and the indigent are also members of this class. We e1n brace a toxin as deadly as nicotine, suspended in an aerosol of hydrocarbons and nitrosamiues, because we have not yet found pleasures or routines that can replace the comforting, structure—bringing rhythm of need and gratification that the cigarette habit offers. One word for this structuring mighl be “self—medication”; another might be “coping.” But there 160 JONATHAN FRANZEN are very few serious smokers over thirty, perhaps none at all, who don’t feel guilty for the harm they inflict on themselves. liven Rose Cipollone, the Newjersey woman whose heirs in the early eighties nearly sustained a liability judgment against the industry, had to be recruited by an activist. The sixty law lirlns that have pooled their assets for a class—action suit on behalf of all American smokers do not seem to me substan— tially less predatory than the suit’s corporate defendants. I’ve never met a smoker who blamed the habit on someone else. The United States as a whole resembles an addicted in— dividual, with the corporate id going about its dirty business while the conflicted political ego frets and dithers. What’s clear is that the tobacco industry would not still be flourish— in g, thirty years after the first Surgeon General’s report, if our legislatures weren’t purchasable, if the concepts of honor and personal responsibility hadn’t largely given way to the power of litigation and the dollar, and if the country didn’t generally endorse the idea of corporations whose ultimate responsibil— ily is not to society but to the bottom line. There’s no doubt that some tobacco executives have behaved despicably, and for public—health advocates to hate these executives, as the nicotine addict comes eventually to hate his cigarettes, is natural. But to cast them as moral monsters—a point source of evil—is just another form of prime—time entertainment. iiv SELLING ITS SOUL to its legal advisers, Big Tobacco long ago made clear its expectation that the country’s smoking problem would eventually be resolved in court. The industry may soon suffer such a devastating loss in a liability suit that thereafter only foreign cigarette makers will be able to afford Io do business here. Or perhaps a federal court will under— SIFTING THE ASHES 161 take to legislate a solution to a problem that the political process has clearly proved itself unequal to, and the Supreme Court will issue an opinion that does for the smoking issue what Brown v. The Board of Education did for racial segrega tion and Roe v. I/Vade for abortion. Liggett’s recent defection notwithstanding, the Medicare suits filed by five states seem unlikely to change the indus try’s ways. Kluger notes that these cases arguably amount lo and that the Suprcmc “personal injury claims in disguise,” Court has ruled that federal cigarette—labeling laws are an el fective shield against such claims. Logically, in other words, the states ought to be suing smokers, not cigarette makers. And perhaps smokers, in turn, ought to be suing Social Security and private pension funds for all the money they’ll save by dying early. The best estimates of the nationwide dollar “cost” of smoking, including savings from premature death and income from excise taxes, are negative numbers. ll the country’s health is to be measured fiscally, an economist quoted by Kluger jokes, “cigarette smoking should be suhsi dized rather than taxed.” Ultimately, the belief that the country’s century—long low affair with the cigarette can be ended rationally and amicath seems as fond as the belief that there’s a painless way to kid. nicotine. The first time I quit, I stayed clean for nearly three years. I found I was able to work more productively without the distraction and cumulative unpleasantness of cigarettes, and l was happy finally to be the nonsmoker that my family had al ways taken me to be. Eventually, though, in a season of great personal loss, I came to resent having quit for other people rather than for myself. I was hanging out with smokers, and I drifted back into the habit. Smoking may not look sexy to me anymore, but it still feels sexy. The pleasure of carrying the 182 JONATHAN FRANZEN drug, of surrendering to its imperatives and relaxing behind a veil of smoke, is thoroughly licentious. If longevity were the highest good that I could imagine, I might succeed right now in scaring myself into quitting. But to the fatalist who values the present more than the future, the nagging voice of con— science—of society, of family—becomes just another factor in lhe mental equilibrium that sustains the habit. “Perhaps,” Richard Klein writes in Cigarettes Are Sublime, “one stops smoking only when one starts to love cigarettes, heeoming so enamored of their charms and so grateful for their benefits that one at last begins to grasp how much is lost by giving them up, how urgent it is to find substitutes for some of the seductions and powers that cigarettes so magnificently combine.” To live with uncontaminated lungs and an unracing heart is a pleasure that I hope someday soon In prefer to the pleasure of a cigarette. For myself, then, I’m cautiously optimistic. For the body politic, rhetorically torn between shrill condemnation and Neanderthal denial, and habituated to the poison of tobacco money in its legal sys— lCln, its legislatures, its financial markets, and its balance of foreign trade, I’m considerably less so. A few weeks ago in Tribeca, in a Magritte—like twilight, I saw a woman in a lighted window on a high floor of a loft apartment building. She was standing on a chair and lowering the window’s upper sash. She tossed her hair and did some— thing complicated with her arms which I recognized as the lighting of a cigarette. Then she leaned her elbow and her chin on the sash and blew smoke into the humid air outside. I fell in love at first sight as she stood there, both inside and out— Slth, inhaling contradiction and breathing out ambivalence. [I996] SIFTING THE ASHES 183 ...
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