Politics Nixed In Cancer Stick Flick

When Christopher Buckley’s novel Thank You for Smoking came out in 1994 it was a surprising satire of the vilification of the tobacco industry, the zealotry of health advocates, and the pandering of politicians. Just as the first big wave of congressional tobacco hearings got underway, Thank You for Smoking delivered the story of a sympathetic (if relentlessly disingenuous) tobacco lobbyist pitted against nefarious do-gooders and a manipulative media.

Fans had plenty to fear from a movie adaptation, which opened last weekend: Would Hollywood sanitize this irreverent satire of spin culture and demonize its tobacco-shilling protagonist, Nick Naylor? Would the open mockery of health crusaders and the easily duped American public be turned into a cautionary tale about the evils of corporations? Screenwriter and director Jason Reitman remains true to Buckley’s message, but the dozen years between the novel and the film have rendered the once bold satire only mildly titillating: politically incorrect enough to make the audience feel like they’re in on a naughty prank against The Man, but not politically incorrect enough to tip any sacred cows.

Reitman’s decision to keep Buckley’s early 1990s setting, rather than moving the action to the present, spoils a perfect opportunity to update the novel’s politics and to comment on the implications of recent developments in tobacco control: Jurisdiction-wide indoor (and outdoor) smoking bans usurp both individual freedom and parental responsibility for protecting their children from avoidable dangers; the cartelization of the tobacco industry through the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (in which the major tobacco companies agreed to restrict advertising and cough up $206 billion in payments to state governments) places enormous burdens on would-be competitors to the tobacco giants; and the stigmatization and intentional inconveniencing of smokers, with no apparent health benefits, has begun attracting negative buzz, even from within the tobacco control movement.

That said, Reitman does take a jab at the fervor and radicalism of today’s anti-smoking zealots, so that when Nick is kidnapped and covered in a lethal number of nicotine patches, it’s not (as in Buckley’s version) a frame-up by Big Tobacco, but a genuine plot by over-zealous foot-soldiers from some radicalized equivalent of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. The 2006 reality is that Big Anti-Tobacco seems far more likely these days to cook up underhanded PR stunts than Big Tobacco.

If only Reitman had similarly updated Nick Naylor’s attempt to persuade Hollywood to put cigarettes back in the hands of likeable film characters, rather than the usual "psychopaths and Europeans" (think Alan Rickman in Die Hard ). With today’s nannies-turned-film-critics trying desperately to get R ratings slapped on "any film that shows or implies tobacco," except when the depiction of cigarettes is prelude to a sermon on the dangers of tobacco or "is necessary to represent the smoking of a real historical figure," Reitman could have cooked up a hilarious brainstorming session in which a tobacco lobbyist and a Hollywood mogul hunt for ways to make emphysema look sexy and reasons to include historical figures in as many movies as possible.

Although the movie doesn’t stake out much new ground in the tobacco debate, Reitman delivers an explicit message of personal responsibility and individual choice that rarely comes from Hollywood and is almost never associated with smoking in polite company. Whereas the novel’s version of Nick Naylor views personal responsibility as a convenient diversion from the unfortunate lethal side-effects of smoking, Reitman’s Naylor comes to see that it’s the other way around: The emotional nature of the health appeals obscures the importance of individuals taking responsibility for their own choices—and parents taking responsibility for teaching their kids to make informed decisions.

Ironically, it’s the tobacco companies themselves that are to blame for letting health—rather than personal responsibility—dominate the debate. When the enormity of the lies the tobacco companies had told came to light in the mid to late 1990s, it was all too easy for the anti-tobacco advocates to frame the debate in terms of innocent victims (who were shocked, shocked! to learn that smoking was addictive and harmful) versus the evil tycoons who had sent them to their graves. The way anti-smoking activists continue carrying on about the lies, you’d think the tobacco executives were still plotting away—but the reality is that the tobacco companies are funding a significant number of tobacco control efforts in one way or another, either through state programs funded from the proceeds of the Master Settlement Agreement, or by direct advertising against their own products. This too is a nuance that the film ignores.

Thank You for Smoking is groundbreaking only insomuch as it manages to plant its libertarian message by making Nick Naylor a sympathetic character the audience hates to love, rather than loves to hate. While the film’s friendly critical reception is heartening, I doubt that anyone will watch Thank You for Smoking and suddenly reject the orthodoxy in favor of any new truth.