Lying for a Living


Thank You for Smoking, by Christopher Buckley, New York: Random House, 272 pages, $22.00

On the first page of Thank You for Smoking, we get a description of the evil committed by tobacco companies. A speaker at the Clean Lungs 2000 conference is in the middle of introducing Nick Naylor, chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. "'I'm certain that our next…panelist,' the speaker hesitated, the word just too neutral to describe a man who earned his living by killing 1,200 human beings a day. Twelve hundred people—two jumbo jet planeloads a day of men, women, and children. Yes, innocent children, denied their bright futures….Lambs, slaughtered by Nicholas Naylor and the tobacco industry fiends he so slickly represented. More than 400,000 a year! And approaching the half-million mark. Genocide, that's what it was…"

A bit exaggerated, to be sure, but not much different from the rhetoric of anti-smoking activists (or "gaspers," as Nick calls them). Christopher Buckley, a Washington journalist and ex-smoker, appreciates the absurdity of such fulminations, and much of this satiric novel (his fourth) pokes fun at the sanctimony of the anti-smoking movement. The tobacco industry is so besieged by self-righteous paternalists lately that even readers who are inclined to sympathize with the gaspers will find themselves rooting for Nick, weasel though he is.

For Buckley (and, ultimately, Nick), the main sin of the tobacco industry seems to be mendacity, not murder. He has a good time lampooning the sort of evasion and misdirection we have come to expect from representatives of the tobacco industry as they attempt to brush off the suggestion that smoking causes lung cancer or that cigarettes are addictive. Nick, a "puffer" himself, is quick to observe that it's impossible to prove in any given case that smoking caused someone's illness, and he is not above inventing claims out of whole cloth (such as "the report that just came out showing that tobacco smoke is replacing the ozone that has been lost due to chlorofluorocarbons").

In general, the tobacco industry deserves the treatment it gets in Thank You for Smoking. Whether or not they go as far as Nick Naylor, cigarette makers are certainly less than candid about the nature of their product and the risks of using it. But their lies are ridiculous precisely because no one believes them. Indeed, no one is expected to. The tobacco companies refuse to acknowledge the unpleasant facts about cigarettes not because they hope to fool consumers but because they are afraid that admitting the hazards of smoking would make them more vulnerable to product-liability suits. Yet whatever legal advantage the industry has gained by continuing to deny the obvious is more than outweighed by its complete loss of credibility in the public debate over smoking.

Nick recognizes this fact, and he wishes the Academy could be straightforward about health risks. When a powerful senator proposes a law that would require a large skull and cross bones on every package of cigarettes (ostensibly to reach illiterates and immigrants who haven't learned English yet), Nick imagines that the industry might take the opportunity to come clean. His inspiration is Death cigarettes. "Nick knew all about Death cigarettes," Buckley writes. "Everyone at the Academy kept a pack, with its distinctive skull and bones logo, despite the fact that the industry's official attitude toward Deaths was not exactly collegial. It was the perfect cigarette for the cynical age. It said—shouted—our product will kill you! What product advertised itself more honestly than that?"

The interesting thing about Death cigarettes is that they really exist, and the gaspers hate them. Rather than applaud the merchants of Death for their honesty, anti-smoking activists and public-health officials are appalled by what they see as an attempt to capitalize on macho attitudes. They don't want truth in advertising. They want to get rid of cigarettes, period.

But most Americans would probably look upon the tobacco industry more favorably if cigarette companies simply said, "Look, smoking is risky. So are a lot of things that give people pleasure. Smoking may take a few years off your life. But that's a price many people are willing to pay." Then tobacco companies would be in the same position as manufacturers of motorcycles, swimming pools, scuba equipment, skis, hang gliders, roller skates, and fatty foods. You don't hear ski makers say, "We recognize that the use of our product is statistically associated with fractures, and we are prepared to call skiing a risk factor. But we just don't think the causal link has been proven with certainty."

On the other hand, as Buckley makes clear, truth is not an adequate defense against paternalists. Even businesses that are honest about the risks associated with their products have to worry about legislative assaults. Nick seeks comfort in weekly lunches at a Washington restaurant with two friends who work for the alcohol and firearms industries. Since they are known as Merchants of Death, they call themselves the MOD Squad. Their meetings illustrate the frustration of constantly being on the defensive, of always having to justify how you make your living. Whenever a drunk plows into a little old lady, the alcohol spokeswoman is expected to respond. Whenever a nut goes on a rampage with a gun, the firearms spokesman has to issue a press release. And this is really the way Washington works, with unfortunate incidents and gory stories taking the place of arguments and evidence.

Buckley is also right on target in his depiction of the news media, from the vacuity of supposedly serious talk shows to the routine deception and betrayal practiced by successful newspaper reporters. At one point Nick calls a newspaper to complain about the headline over a story about a death threat he received while appearing on Larry King Live ("CALLER TO KING SHOW THREATENS TO STUB OUT TOBACCO SPOKESMAN"). He is greeted by a voice-mail message: "You have reached the Washington Sun's ombudsman desk. If you feel you have been inaccurately quoted, press one. If you spoke to a reporter off the record but were identified in the article, press two. If you spoke on deep background but were identified, press three. If you were quoted accurately but feel that the reporter missed the larger point, press four. If you are a confidential White House source and are calling to alert your reporter that the President is furious over leaks and has ordered a review of all outgoing calls in White House phone logs, press five."

As that bit suggests, Buckley cannot resist going over the top for a laugh. But despite a cloak-and-dagger plot that involves kidnapping and attempted murder, most of the book rings true: the anti-smoking rhetoric, the tobacco industry's tactics, the maneuvering that always avoids the central issue. Buckley seems ambivalent about the whole mess, one reason that people on both sides of the debate about smoking will enjoy reading this book. The other reason, of course, is that Buckley is funny, and a sense of humor (and perspective) is sorely needed as we head toward the final showdown between the gaspers and the puffers.