From the pages of February 1996


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Where There's Smoke...

By Bob Harris


At the Philip Morris factory tour in Richmond, Virginia, the spin begins before you even enter the door. From the outside, the place looks less like an industrial megalith than it does a tobacco theme park. A stylized metal sculpture incorporates the logos of all PM's major brands, including Marlboro, the best-selling coffin nail in the world. The smokestacks are decorated to look like cigarettes, turning belching pollution into a sight gag. Even the footlights leading to the building are cylindrical with little filter tops. All that's missing is a statue of Strom Thurmond holding an oxygen mask.

Once inside, you fill out a guest register. After name and address on the form, there's a space for “brand,” as if smoking is as automatic as a zip code.

There's also a low humming noise...air conditioning? Hmmm...

The lobby is a giant exhibit on smoking's place as an essential part of America. Which is a real deal, actually. Maryland was founded solely for growing tobacco, and the slave trade existed for generations largely to service the carcinogenic agriculture of Virginia and the Carolinas.

The corporate propaganda proudly trumpets that almost one hundred million Americans light up every day. They don't mention the 500,000 customers who die every year, including my Dad last Thanksgiving. Thanks, guys.

There are also displays about Philip Morris's part in our culture, from its TV sponsorship of “I Love Lucy” and NFL games to the company's recent acquisition of Kraft, Miller Beer, Oscar Meyer, and Tombstone Pizza (an apt name if there ever was one). And if providing the world with alcohol, smoke, and saturated fat isn't enough, there's even PM Credit to keep track of your ability to pay for your indulgences.

“Culture” is explicitly defined here as the given set of consumer choices and the ability to consume.

The company also paints itself as politically progressive, pointing toward Virginia Slims' “positive” message to women. The doubling of female lung cancer since 1970 is again somehow neglected.

It's all bright and polished as heck. The hookahs and snuff boxes in the display cases are as antiseptic and well-presented as the Smithsonian. The school kids going along on the tour -- who else goes on these things, anyway? -- are getting the impression that smoking is patriotic and clean.

Even the air smells really nice.

The humming noise continues.

The tour begins with a short film in a viewing room with large ashtrays screwed prominently into every seat.

The movie is an extended sales pitch, trumpeting PM's concern “for consumers of today and a world of tomorrow.” It opens with the familiar Marlboro Man ad, with the guy on the horse and the mountains and the western music The camera zooms in, the gnarly old studboy opens his mouth, and out comes... Japanese. The school kids all laugh.

The ads still run in Japan; cigarette companies are increasingly turning abroad as health-conscious Americans give up the habit. Fully half of PM's sales come from operations in 170 countries. The Commerce Department and U.S. Trade Representatives have spent the last decade subsidizing tobacco ads overseas and blackmailing smaller countries into lowering trade barriers.

The cancer rate in the third world has skyrocketed.

The film goes on to boast of the company's concern for its people, its work at “creating and improving communities,” and its history of “meeting consumer preferences since 1854.” There's nothing about the morality of pushing an addictive substance into undeveloped countries for profit. Am I expecting too much?

On we go to the tour bus. Both Vicki, our guide, and the bus are decorated in the red and white Marlboro color scheme. There's a lot to see -- the work area is three football fields of cadaverous contraptions sucking tobacco through underground pipes at 75 mph, requiring the services of 100,000 employees working three shifts to whip out a billion cigarettes a day.

In small quantities, tobacco doesn't smell any worse than, say, the trunk of the car I owned in college. But a billion butts' worth? Yowza. This place kinda reeks.

It's also not exactly the most enlightened workplace. Workers wear drone uniforms, but supervisors get to wear their regular clothes. Whereas the executive suites have a lovely view of the facility's gardens and landscaping, the windows on the manufacturing floor are silvered, reflecting the giant machines back into the face of any worker seeking the sun.

Hard to tell how much money this all makes, but Vicki says that Philip Morris pays $6.5 million to the government every day. How much of that goes to Jesse Helms isn't specified, but it's not hard to see why the War on Drugs doesn't include nicotine.

Matter of fact, last year's House of Representatives inquiry into nicotine levels was mostly wiped out when Gingrich appointed Congressperson Philip Bliley, the Republican from Philip Morris's home district, to head the very committee doing the inquiry. Bliley and Gingrich both have tobacco dollars in their pockets.

No one smokes on the factory floor. Pressed for an explanation -- after all, smoking is a healthy patriotic American tradition, right? -- Vicki put it down to “insurance reasons,” newspeak for admitting that smoking is a messy, dirty habit that would eventually make the PM wage slaves cough up blood.

The tour ends at the company store, where visitors can pay for all sorts of PM advertising geegaws and snag as many cigs as their wallets can support. There's a suggestion box -- shaped like a pack of Marlboros -- for anyone who has a bright idea on how to increase the efficiency of this gruesome machine.

Of course, the adults on the tour get complimentary packs of any brand they want. That's how drug dealers work. The first one's always free.

There's that humming noise again... Oh, wait... Hey... It's actually a state-of-the-art ventilation system. Aha... that's why the air smells so, well, unsmoky in here.

The kids were clearly impressed with the whole thing.

I opened a pack of “light” cigarettes, lit one up, and sucked hard. I don't smoke. I almost coughed up my frenulum. The sound of my lungs' mortifying fight for air gave the kids an idea what being so damned clean and patriotic would be like.

Vicki didn't know whether to help me or scold me. She just smiled wanly and kept handing out the cigarettes.

The Philip Morris Manufacturing Center is just south of downtown Richmond, Virginia. Take 1-95 to the Bells Rd. exit, turn right twice and follow the signs.