Tales taller than a tobacco plant

Ben Fortson

The following story is true (I wish it wasn’t, but at least I’ve alerted you). Several weeks ago, after driving two hours south of Asheville, I arrived at a Saturday sporting event on a large college campus (whose mascot is not a chicken).

After settling into my comfy aluminum plank under the blazing sun, I made the mistake of introducing myself to the skinny young man sitting to my left. He proceeded to offer not only his name and identity (an undergraduate of the home team) but the reason he barely missed-out on making the roster of the pre-season #1 team in the nation (which was getting ready to play a football game a half-mile below us).

After his lengthy explanation—which seemed to be coming from a scrawny, unfootballish frame—he then tried to clarify why he had chosen to attend this fine university (something about how friendly the students and fans were). Although beginning to feel somewhat nervous about his I’ll-be-here-talking-to-you-for-the-next-three-hours vibe, I could appreciate his genuine enthusiasm for unloading on a total stranger, and I tried to listen attentively (with one eye on the game, which had now started).

His tale eventually ended and we both decided to give our full attention to the game. Unfortunately, this only lasted about ten-minutes, when rather abruptly, my worst fan-fears were realized. My new 20-year-old I-coulda-been-a-contender friend (we’ll call him
Ted), began shouting mocking taunts at the opposing teams fans, many of whom were perched on matching aluminum planks within easy earshot.

Not only did this seem uncharacteristic of Ted—I thought he was only going to talk to me—but the comments coming out of his scrawny mouth were less than amiable… and given his pre-game pep talk, certainly baffling.

Being unable to hide and wanting to communicate to all the other strangers in the stadium, “Hey, I have no idea who this guy is!”, I nonchalantly tried to slide toward my daughter, who had instinctively tried to slide toward her mother. Although this seemed to provide some level of disconnect, unfortunately I could not disconnect from the abusive verbiage flying past my left ear and into the crowd below.

As the game progressed, despite the beatdown of an opposing team slightly better than Charles D. Owen Middle School's, Ted’s ostentations grew. With the heat bearing down, the crowd glaring ever-so-much-more menacingly at Ted (and me), and the tiny football game going-on below becoming less and less relevant, I was on the brink of grabbing Ted by the shoulders and politely screaming, “Your claims seem somewhat hollow!”…
or something like that.

At this moment of personal meltdown, Ted paused from his brash taunts, sat down, inhaled deeply and quite innocently, blew a large cloud of vape smoke into my face—which immediately took my mind, and this column, in a different direction…

Thank You For Smoking is a dark, satirical comedy about the efforts of the tobacco industry to encourage smoking. Following its spin-master lobbyist, Nick Taylor, on his smooth-talking journey to schools, television stations and congressional hearings, we quickly learn that Nick is an excellent storyteller (liar). Protecting some of tobacco’s biggest yarns— cigarettes aren’t addictive, smoking enhances your self-image, attracts the opposite sex, improves your health, keeps you slender—Nick learns to avoid facing facts by questioning the logic of his detractors and advocating for personal choice.

Eventually, Nick is faced with his hypocritical, deceiving career, only to be reminded by his son that “somebody has to defend the corporations that nobody wants to defend.” Realizing his gift for defending hollow claims—like my friend Ted—he eventually leaves the tobacco industry and starts a private firm, lobbying for fast-food, oil and bio-hazard industries (remember, dark comedy).

Although the film fails to mention North Carolina’s deeply-rooted tobacco economy, Nick often finds himself meeting with the big-wigs in Winston-Salem (home to R.J. Reynolds; maker of Newports, Camels, Lucky Strikes and a few other nicotine-laden magic wands). Surrounded by a cast of rich, self-indulgent, I-could-care-less characters, Nick finally comes to terms with his talent, and his colleagues, by rationalizing,
“everyone’s got a mortgage to pay.”

I still haven’t figured out how Ted is paying his mortgage—maybe he’s renting—but his bold oblivion, combined with his illegal, stadium-puffing exhibition, ironically cleared everything up for me. Ted is Nick. Nick is Ted. And reality—acknowledging the facts that apply to everyone else in the universe—is irrelevant.

In the movie, what ultimately makes Nick’s character so intriguing is his ability to unreservedly ignore the truth; the reality that cigarettes kill people. By creating his own narrative and sticking with it, he convinces a large portion of the populace that smoking cigarettes is a perfectly safe and sexy, albeit life-threatening, behavior (if that sounds like double-talk, it’s not… as long as you don’t give any credence to facts).

Not only are these incredibly interesting mind games, Nick and Ted’s worldview also provide a very compelling insight into the tobacco industry of today’s North Carolina… that by all realities, should be extinct, but is in fact, thriving. Thriving to the tune of $90.6 billion.

“How is this possible in a smoke-free, limited-advertising, healthconscious culture?” It’s all about how we view reality—thanks imaginary character Nick and Clemson-student Ted—and about North Carolina history. Stay tuned for a full report…