The Summer of Smoke?
by Steve Heilig, December 17, 2010
“The Summer of Love, protests to be civil and a rainbow of counterculture. Whether you started here or put flowers in your hair, grabbed a drum and hitched a ride on a painted minibus, Camel lights up this little piece of San Francisco that pulses with the spirit to evolve, revolve or revolt and follows the force to break free.”
Somebody got paid to write that — probably paid well. It's drivel, of course, but drivel with a purpose. And that purpose? Killing people for cash.
Tobacco marketers are an easy target in these times, of course — see Christopher Buckley's fine and funny book “Thank You For Smoking” and the less-fine but still worthwhile film made from it for mainstream example. But not so long ago, “Big Tobacco” promoted their products with impunity — see the wonderful retro-series “Mad Men” for more on that. By the 1970s it was clear that tobacco was our greatest addictive hazard; and that even secondhand smoke was dangerous. But even in the 1990s, here in “liberal” San Francisco, taking now-obvious steps like banning smoking in restaurants earned us epithets like “public health fascists.” (I wore that one proudly.) Most recently, it was a real battle to remove tobacco products from pharmacies — which are supposed to be vendors of healthy products — and the effort to minimize San Franciscans' exposure to secondhand smoke continues. The effort to get smoking out of movies, to further restrict advertising at sports events, in magazines, and so forth, continues, fought each step of the way with big Big Tobacco money.
The vast majority of smokers start as teenagers, or at least while still quite young. A decline in smoking from about half of all American adults to about half that was only achieved over the long haul by slowing the rate of those who stop smoking. Big Tobacco knows all this, and thus concentrates its marketing on the young. Unfortunately, that too often still works, even with all the restrictions that have been gradually been placed on marketing.
One of the tactics that bugs me most is the “healthy” or even politically correct cigarette — brands such as American Spirit, owned by Big Tobacco, no less damaging than others, and using the image of Native Americans to hook hipsters. For years now I have seen otherwise smart and health-minded young people get gradually addicted to such brands. I rarely feel it's my place to say anything, but when I do, the responses are words like “I only smoke a couple a day,” “I don't buy packs, just singles or borrow from friends,” “It's just a social thing” — the same lines said by early tobacco addicts for generations now. It's very saddening, and very maddening.
Back to the Camel's nose entering the Haight: San Francisco’s city attorney and director of health have protested this shameless marketing in a letter to Daniel Delen, CEO of RJ Reynolds Tobacco in North Carolina, noting that Reynolds is “exploiting the name and image of the Haight, a historically significant neighborhood that is associated with youth counterculture and rebellion, to market cigarettes to young people.”
Too true. But one might think, or hope, that this time the tobacco pushers misjudged the 'hood — most real hippies are now far too old to be fooled, and I think young people in the Haight either don't care or outright disdain the whole ancient “Summer of Love” hippie mythology. But I'm not so sure, alas; tobacco marketers tend to be tragically good at their jobs. That ridiculous poster and pack just might work in some cases, and another of the 400,000 Americans who die each year due to tobacco will be recruited.
Prohibition does not work – for alcohol, other drugs, or tobacco. There is much debate about the best ways to curtail smoking via anti-tobacco ads, by restricting what tobacco marketers can do with their ads, and by including health warnings on tobacco products and marketing. But the best measure is likely to be no marketing at all.
So, a modest proposal: Any billboard company, store, publication, eatery — anyone — who helps carry the murderer's message and/or product should be boycotted. Not just in the Haight, but anywhere in San Francisco. Our Mayor, Supervisors, and other leaders should call for such “market pressure” to be applied. And yes, so-called local “neighborhood associations” and activists — and certain newspaper columnists — who seem to be able to get quite worked up in opposing a longstanding recycling center, for example, might also work up a bit of disdain and activism towards these legal drug pushers. I bet they'd be mad at gun dealers moving into their neighborhood, and this is really not so different in terms of the outcome. Call it fascism if you wish, or even worse, censorship or liberalism, but do it anyway. As Big Tobacco advises, let's “follow the force to break free” — and kick the Camels out of the Haight and San Francisco.