He looked about 5" 10'' in a black Armani suit and
a tan that made him resemble above all things a talent agent. However,
unlike an agent, his smile felt sincere. Most notably, his posture boasted
an upright lightness that made him seem––of all things—guilt
He was the public spokesman for an industry that until recently was
perfectly happy to remain a faceless operation, hiding behind characters
like Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man. But with cigarette companies folding
into much larger food conglomerates and settlements being announced
by the day, it was time for Big Tobacco to take the public stage. The
grinning man before us worked for Philip Morris, which had recently
renamed itself Altria (no kidding). Apparently Benevolencia and Humanataria
were considered too vulgar.
The evening occurred halfway through a five-year search for financing
to direct my screenplay Thank You For Smoking. I was invited
to the political equivalent of a heavyweight title fight. Jeff Wigand,
the former tobacco executive-turned-informant (most famous for his portrayal
by Russell Crowe in the film The Insider), was going toe-to-toe
with a real-life tobacco spokesman for a live audience.
Wigand spoke first. Now let me preface this by saying I think Jeff Wigand
is an incredible American and one of the bravest men I’ve ever
met. That said, he just might be better suited standing up
to Big Tobacco than standing before an audience of two hundred people.
Even if he reconsidered the disheveled university professor look (elbow
patches, etc.), it would be hard to understand how a man could sweat
so much before an audience that was so unanimously supportive.
He flew through his prepared statements quickly, having obviously delivered
them before. The statistics, as shocking as they often were, couldn’t
fully be appreciated due to the rapid way in which they were propelled
to the audience. His mind often moved so fast that he would drop words
without noticing. He was the best money couldn’t buy.
The most enjoyable part of all this was watching the tobacco spokesman
react to the litany of accusations being launched from the other side
of the stage. As the statements got nastier and nastier, the guy in
the Armani suit just kept nodding with a compassionate smile. I can
only compare it to the way a groom responds to being roasted by his
best man at a wedding. If Wigand brought up something like cigarette
vending machines at publicly funded daycare centers, the spokesman’s
response would be something akin to, Yup, that was us. I can’t
believe you remember that!
I couldn’t help it. I loved this guy. He represented the same
charming swagger I fell in love with in Nick Naylor, the lead character
of Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You For Smoking.
After a half hour of what could only be described as tobacco bashing
met by euphoric applause on a religious level, we were introduced to
the best money could buy. The man in the suit nodded to the
audience with a little wave that said, I know you’d like to
lynch me, but perhaps we can have a chat?
The man from Big Tobacco began talking about Altria’s views of
the future. None of which were overtly offensive. As you might imagine,
he made generous use of the words “freedom,” “choice”
and “liberty.” He talked so sincerely about putting an end
to the segregation of smokers and non-smokers, that I couldn’t
help wishing he began his speech, I have a dream.
The highlight of the evening occurred when a seething local man questioned
why Big Tobacco was thwarting a new law set to designate California
apartment buildings as either smoking or non-smoking. Again, the spokesman
smiled. Then, he said the following:
Well, this law is just another example of the rich trying to suppress
the poor. Sure, if you’re wealthy enough to afford a house, you
can choose whether or not to smoke. But if you can’t afford a
house and are forced to rent, that choice…that right is taken
away. Well, if there’s anything we believe in at Altria, it’s
freedom. We will not stand by and watch as a person’s rights are
The answer came off ridiculous but, to a certain extent, wasn’t
that far off from what I believe. I do believe people should have the
right to smoke. Just as I believe people should have the right to be
stupid, wear hammer pants and harm themselves irrevocably if their heart
truly desires. The man who asked the question was so stunned by the
answer that he just sat back down in confusion. Then the spokesman simply
scanned the crowd with a smile for the next person.
Toward the end of the evening, I raised my hand. The man from Big Tobacco
saw me and pointed me out. A nearby usher brought a microphone to my
lips. I then asked the man, Sir, do you have children? This
was a question posed to the main character of my movie and I wanted
to try it out on the real McCoy.
For a split-second, the man’s smile faded. I understand why. Nothing
good could come of this introduction. I was making it personal. No one
likes that. But his smile returned and he responded cautiously, Yes,
I’m the proud father of two.
Just as in my screenplay, I followed up with, What would you do
if you caught them smoking? He thought about this for a second,
then looked back up and said, I love my children. I want them to
be fully aware of the realities of smoking.
I never spoke to anyone else from Big Tobacco throughout the process
of making my film. Jeff Wigand did read the screenplay and offered me
plenty of notes. All of them correcting various statistical errors.
When I asked him whether he thought it was funny, he responded, I
find the screenplay inaccurate in places.