Thursday, 6 November 2008

America - Up In Smoke

“... And then the ay-uh moves the product on to the next machine.” We were being addressed by a silver haired old lady wearing glasses. She was a sort of composite granny, sweet and harmless, which was at odds with her day job as a spokesperson for your genuine merchant of death. “If you'd like to follow me, I'll show you the next stage of production.” We crossed the vast factory floor to the next high-tech piece of of machinery. I glanced around, half expecting to see some one in a dinner jacket shooting at a man stroking a long haired, white Persian cat. “You are too late, Mr Bond. We already rule the world.”

We were at the RJ Reynolds cigarette factory outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina. For a centre of evil it had excellent disabled access.

The entrance foyer had a dramatic mural of all things tobacco made entirely from tobacco leaves and a sign saying 'Thank You for Smoking'. All the tour guides were elderly 'granny' type figures because, so local wisdom maintained, rabid anti-smokers were less likely to abuse or assault them. The production area was a vast, cavernous space dotted with automated machinery linked together with tubes of plastic. Two or three people oversaw production, moving between machines on tricycles. Tens of thousands of little death sticks were being made as we stood and watched.

The tobacco industry is despicable on so many levels. From its denial of the harmful effects of their product against all the evidence (the causal relationship between smoking and lung cancer has been known since the early 1950s). Even as late as 1998 (4 years after this story takes place) senior industry executives were saying under oath -

*We don't believe it's ever been established that smoking is the cause of disease."
Murray Walker, Vice-President and Chief Spokesperson for the Tobacco Institute, testifying at the Minnesota trial. (1998)


"I'm unclear in my own mind whether anyone dies of cigarette smoking-related diseases."
Geoffrey Bible, Chairman of Philip Morris at the Minnesota trial. (1998)

As wealthier nations legislate against smoking the industry builds new markets in poorer 3rd world and developing countries. All the while they hide behind 'a freedom of choice' argument. And what do they think of their customers?

An actor promoting RJ Reynolds products asks an RJR executive why he does not smoke. He is told:
“We don’t smoke that s***. We just sell it. We just reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid.” (Cited in, First Tuesday, ITV 1992)

Lovely people. So why were we here, listening to a sweet old lady telling us about the colleges they support and the museums they build? Well frankly, Winston-Salem is tobacco. There doesn't seem to be an awful lot to do that isn't in some way related to the weed. And I have to admit, it was very interesting. There was an exhibition on the history of cigarette advertising, including RJ Reynolds very own Joe Camel, who to American children is said to be as recognisable as Mickey Mouse. (The industry doesn't target young people, of course.) (They said so.) On the way out we were invited to help ourselves to the product. Boxes and boxes of cigarettes were there to be taken. It seemed churlish not to take at least one. Later, I realised that was exactly what they wanted and so I threw them away. (I foiled their cunning plan to get me hooked. Ha ha. One less victim of their fiendish plot for world domination.)

“And then the ay-uh moves the cigarettes on to the next section.” The sweet old lady guided us across to yet another humming, grey machine. “Any questions?” Polly raised her hand politely. “What exactly is an ay-uh?” she asked, looking around for this mysterious transporter. The old lady looked puzzled. “Ay-uh?” “Yes, the ay-uh. The thing that moves the cigarettes around the factory.” The sweet old lady pointed at the pipes linking the machines. “The ay-uh in the tubes. It's compressed.” “Ah,” said Polly in sudden realisation. “Compressed ay-uh.”

You may have got the impression that I'm not very keen on smoking. The fact that it's smelly and lethal has nothing to do with it. It's the unbelievable arrogance of the senior executives who are prepared to lie and lie and lie again to protect their profits that angers me. The sweet old lady was very nice though.

Next time – Heritage USA


  1. I always remember a teenage friend's father who said....."Of course I will let you smoke in the house...on one proviso! That I can stand on a table and piss in your hair".

    I don't know which shook my friend the most. That his conservative father used an Anglo Saxon term, or that he genuinely meant it.

    Let's just say that no smoking took place in THAT house!

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