A colorful death by tobacco
I once knew a man who would order multiple meals and a diet soda. He was morbidly obese, a man of robust appetites and grand gestures (he often simply said, “I’ll have the left-hand side of the menu”) who died around his 50th birthday. But as tragic as he was, there was always something mildly hopeful -- if also totally perverse -- about the token nod toward “health” implied by those Tab colas. Sure, he was consuming 15,000 calories in one sitting, but his beverage choice allowed him to hold on to his last vestiges of dignity. As out of control as he was, this was somehow proof he hadn’t yet hit bottom.
A similar and more deadly dynamic has long been in play with cigarettes. Everyone knows by now that they’re killers. But for the last several decades smokers have been afforded some wiggle room in the form of low-tar or “light” cigarettes. Whether they were called “light,” “mild” or “ultra-light” or whether they were being marketed to women or simply those looking to minimize the risks of smoking, the idea was that they were safer than the old-fashioned stuff. The Marlboro Man’s cigarette might have been made of snakes and snails and puppy dog tails. But a cigarette like, say, Virginia Slims Lights was made of self-respect. (A 1979 ad went, “When he offers you a low-tar cigarette, tell him you’ve got one of your own.”) Camel Lights, at least back when I was in college, were apparently made of great literature, as they were smoked by roughly 70% of English majors.
But Camel Lights are now Camel Blues. Under the new federal tobacco law, which went into effect Tuesday, it’s illegal for cigarette manufacturers to use words like “light” and “mild” to suggest that some cigarettes are less harmful than others. As a result, we have lately seen a rainbow of new marketing techniques, a color-coding system wherein blue, silver and gold connote light and ultra light, and red and dark green signal regular tar levels. Along with this coding has sprung up an array of slightly altered names. Marlboro Lights are called Marlboro Gold. Salem Ultra Lights are now Salem Silver Box. Pall Mall, which was introduced at the turn of the last century as a “premium” cigarette (later Kurt Vonnegut would refer to Pall Malls as “a classy way to commit suicide”), made the choice to keep the deep hues of their traditional box designs and make their ultra lights a bright orange.
Of course, critics are already fighting the tobacco industry on the color-coding strategy, insisting that certain pigments are universally associated with certain concepts -- red signals caution, blue signals some measure of peace and tranquility -- and that cigarette companies are skirting the rules by substituting words for colors. Meanwhile, the FDA has begun an investigation into whether cigarette manufacturers are within their rights to market their products via this system.
One needn’t watch “Mad Men” to know all that goes into hiding or avoiding or, as today’s ad executives might call it, “reframing” the perils of smoking. But one also needn’t be a tobacco lobbyist to see that as long as cigarettes are legal, companies should be allowed to provide some indication as to how one type of product differs from another. After all, no one is saying any of them are safe. But let’s say it was legal to pay money to breathe out of exhaust pipes. Wouldn’t it only be fair to let consumers know they were puckering up to a Prius rather than a bus?
The argument can be made that there’s ultimately no difference. A poison is a poison is a poison. The man I knew who washed down his 15,000 calories with a Tab died prematurely from heart disease despite the perceived benefits of that “one calorie, beautiful” soft drink.
Still, his gluttony had a particularly American bent to it in that he was still calling the shots of his own demise. He may have been hopeless in the face of food, but when it came to his beverage, he retained some modicum of control.
But maybe he genuinely preferred the taste of Tab. Imagine that! And maybe some smokers buy light cigarettes not because they think they’ll live longer but because they’re addicted and they’d rather spend the time they have left breathing out of a Prius than a bus.
“Salem Silver Box” may have a nice ring to it, but addiction is colorblind.