Who’s to Blame for Cigarettes?

“My job requires a certain… moral flexibility.”

That’s one of the great little lines delivered by tobacco appologist Nick Naylor (played by Aaron Eckhart) in the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” which I caught on TV the other night. The movie is a comedy about Naylor’s struggles as chief spokesman for a tobacco industry group. I won’t attempt a full review of the movie: suffice it to say that it was funnier than I expected, and does a good job of sending up Big Tobacco without getting distractingly preachy.

But the movie got me thinking about a topic that has long bothered me, namely the degree of culpability to be associated with various roles within the tobacco industry.

The major problems with cigarettes, of course, is that a) they’re deadly even when used correctly, b) they’re highly addictive, and c) they’re attractive to (and have often been marketed to) people too young to know what they’re getting themselves into. And please don’t give me the old “it’s a legitimate business, aimed primarily at consenting adults.” It’s a killer industry. But ok, let’s assume they’ve got the right to do business. The fact that you’ve got a right to do business, doesn’t make your business right. So, what does this imply for all the people involved in the industry? That means not just tobacco execs, but tobacco farmers too, and all the people who work for tobacco companies, whether in sales, R&D, accounting, or of course marketing.

Maybe I’m just in a cranky mood today, but I, for one, see no good reason not to blame each and every person who works for a tobacco company. Not equal culpability for all, of course. The janitorial staff doesn’t deserve the same opprobrium that we reserve for top executives and marketing types. (The janitorial staff likely has fewer skills, and hence fewer job options, and certainly has less control over the company’s behaviour.) But still, I don’t see any reason why every person working in (or providing consulting services to) the industry shouldn’t feel ashamed. I suspect anyone in the industry who feels otherwise is simply showing themselves capable of the sort of “moral flexibility” alluded to above. It’s also known as “self-serving rationalization.”

Does anyone know of anything written on this topic? If so, let me know.
Asher Meir, “The Jewish Ethicist,” had some useful comments on this issue on his blog. I think his comments make a good deal of sense, even without their grounding in Jewish law. Thanks Asher!

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