It cant be easy being CEO of one of the worlds largest publicly traded multinationals, especially when your product is crazy toxic and contributes to human misery the world over. Like Aaron Eckharts fictional character from the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking, youd better be able to look folks in the eye and tell whoppers if you plan on keeping your somewhere north of 20-mill job and cush retirement.
But in a twist of life imitating art, Philip Morris CEO Louis Camilleri at a shareholder meeting earlier this month suggested that quitting the butt really aint no thang.
Taking heat from an anti-smoking activist in the crowd, Camilleri defended Big Tobacco as being proactive in pointing out the obvious health risks. But instead of leaving it at the usual party line, the guy overreached big time when he said that Nevertheless, whilst it [tobacco] is addictive, its not that hard to quit
Now, Im not exactly versed in the world of big business damage control, but Im thinking that Corporate was on Line One about fifteen minutes after their esteemed CEOs Italian loafers hit the office rug.
Corporate callousness is hardly news, but unless were talking West Virginia coal operators its usually more calculated and nuanced than this. Even the Wall Street Journal ran with it.
Camilleris gaff made the news cycle at least in part because millions of us know better. Weve lost or are in the process of losing someone to smoking-related diseases someone who at some point rued starting and desperately tried to stop. Weve lost our dad or our golfing buddy or the fellow recovering addict who could put down every damn thing but the smokes.
But hey, its not that hard to quit.
Over the last 25 years Ive buried dozens of smokers. Ive known homeless Nam vets who would buy cigarettes ahead of a decent meal. Middle school athletes who could barely run wind sprints because they were already half-pack-a-day smokers. So it wasnt just our intelligence that was insulted: it was the memory of those gone too soon.
If theres an upside to this world-class faux pas its that even in a nation ravaged by runaway capitalism, with big money and influence come greater scrutiny and accountability.
And if anybody deserves a good shot of scrutiny and accountability right now, its Philip Morris International.
PMI (a.k.a. Altria) is a gargantuan enterprise. Not only does it own 7 of the worlds top 15 cigarette brands; under the auspices of Kraft Foods, its non-tobacco holdings include everything from cookies to Cool Whip, coffee to Cadbury. (For a full list go to kraftfoodscompany.com and search for brands.)
But even the biggest capitalist venture is vulnerable to at least one thing: boycotts. And thats what we ought to do here. Print out the list of what not to buy, folks. Spread the word. And let both PMI and your grocer know why youre doing what youre doing.
Passing on the Wheat Thins will not bring my parishioners back. And giving up the Oreos will not extend my ailing family members life.
But quitting Philip Morris is a moral decision wrapped in an economic protest.
And its not that hard.
Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 15, 2011
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