The life of a lawyer for Big Tobacco

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VSIgarettes are the deadliest consumer product in the world. Researchers have known this since rigorous studies established the link between smoking, lung cancer and other diseases in the 1940s and 1950s, and there has been no reasonable doubt among the general public since the historical report of the surgeon general from 1964. Yet smoking persists and Big Tobacco remains a reliable and profitable business. It’s the paradox of tobacco: decades of bad news for the cigarette industry has somehow not led to very bad news for its bottom line.

How Big Tobacco thrives despite the onslaught of scientists, activists and lawmakers is one of the intriguing topics explored in Joshua Knelman’s captivating new book. Firebrand: the journey of a tobacco lawyer. The lawyer remains anonymous, referred to throughout only as “the lawyer”, a literary device that reflects both the stigma attached to tobacco lawyers in North America and the genesis of the story as a series of conversations between the lawyer and the author after the intervention of the first. out of the industry. (In real life, the lawyer was revealed to be Max Krangle, now the owner of a business consulting firm in Toronto.)

Early in the lawyer’s career, the regulatory hammer was about to fall on smoking in Europe. His job is compliance, so the company sends him into the field to learn all aspects of the tobacco business. At the top end this included treating prime buyers with days at the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Less glamorous this meant spending days with the local driving team in England, following them as they went shopping for small deals and asking permission to rearrange store shelves to put company brands at eye level. In between is eating on the sheep’s head in Kazakhstan and getting closer to arbitration cases in Spain, where smokers are flocking from Britain and France to take advantage of lower tax rates.

Some of the marketing practices discussed are now firmly in the past or at least much less prevalent than they once were. This partly explains the tobacco paradox. The relentless marketing of the cigarette trade was only partly aimed at attracting new users; it was also about battling rivals for market share. If a company sponsored racing teams and showered stores with brand swag, its competitors had to do the same.

The imposition of advertising restrictions has forced a detente, allowing companies to forego massive ad spending and lay off large chunks of their ad teams. Knelman explains that the Master Settlement Agreement in the United States, described by the press and politicians as a death blow to Big Tobacco, caused more suffering for companies that profited from its publicity largesse. “The actors hardest hit by these restrictions were in fact advertising agencies, as well as magazines, cultural and sports organizations and television networks. More money from Big Tobacco. Cigarettes continued to sell.

Likewise, the massive financial penalties imposed by the settlement – ​​over $200 billion in the first 25 years and extending in perpetuity – have bought the industry immune from legal action and all but paid for themselves. themselves. “On the surface, the industry was being punished for its sins, but it wasn’t really that bad,” Knelman writes. The settlement essentially cartelized the industry, allowing companies to pass on the costs of payments to smokers. “[It] was a team effort; the government and the tobacco companies were both raising the price of each packet sold.”

Although Knelman does not use the term, many of the scenarios described illustrate what economist Bruce Yandle has described as a “smugglers and Baptists” dynamic. This is when anti-vice laws, such as the blue laws against liquor sales advocated by Baptists, end up benefiting providers of vice, such as bootleggers who smuggle illicit liquor.

fire brand exploration of these questions comes to a screeching halt by neglecting how these dynamics have affected the regulation of e-cigarettes, which only get a passing mention in the book despite fitting well into its overall theme. Tobacco regulation by the Food and Drug Administration, a policy backed clandestinely by Philip Morris and Altria, left combustible cigarettes virtually untouched while crushing smaller producers of safer products.

Knelman is acutely aware of both the pleasure of smoking and the enormity of its cost; although the habit was driven out among the upper classes in North America and Europe, he notes that “there are now more smokers – not fewer – than at any time in history: of the 7, 8 billion people on Earth, more than a billion smoke. Alas, the prospect of safer nicotine products replacing deadly cigarettes is overlooked. Knelman instead focuses on increasingly strict prohibitions. Given the proven track record of tobacco harm reduction, the one billion smokers worldwide deserve better.

But this is not a book meant to dig deep into the weeds of policy prescriptions. He also doesn’t dwell too much on the morality of working for Big Tobacco. The lawyer only sporadically faces personal dilemmas regarding the ethics of his work, and there is nothing deep in his motivations for doing so: it’s legal, allows him to travel the world at the expense of business, provides him and his family with a comfortable life in Switzerland, and makes him wealthy.

Brandon succeeds best as an eye-opener and travelogue, offering an inside look at an industry in transition, one that’s still making big money even though its glamor is in steep decline. Readers looking for a detailed policy analysis or introspective character study can look for it elsewhere. This is the funniest book on the tobacco trade since Christopher Buckley’s. Thanks for smokingwith the additional virtue of being based on real experience.

Jacob Grier is the author of several books, including The rediscovery of tobacco, cocktails on tapand Raising the bar (to be published with Brett Adams).

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