If the United States Justice Department gets its way, you might soon see a tobacco advertisement like this one:
‘‘We falsely marketed low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes to keep people smoking and sustain our profits.’’
That’s not exactly sales-inducing ad copy. But it’s what the Justice Department wants as a punishment for the tobacco industry for lying about the health risks of smoking.
Another proposed proclamation the government would force Big Tobacco to make:
‘‘We told Congress under oath that we believed nicotine is not addictive. We told you that smoking is not an addiction and all it takes to quit is willpower. Here’s the truth: Smoking is very addictive. And it’s not easy to quit.’’
These statements are remarkable, not for their revelations, but for what they say about government power and consumers’ attitudes.
Let’s face it: Everyone knows smoking is bad, and we’ve known it for decades despite the industry’s attempt to paint it otherwise. The surgeon general’s warning was right there on the label. But people went on smoking and dying, and the government went on not caring. Hey, it warned the people, right?
Then one day, after a landmark lawsuit, the government decided it was actually bad, and it’s been punishing the industry ever since. At the same time, lifelong smokers (or their survivors) have attempted to reap million- or billion-dollar awards for being the “victims” of these lies.
But no one should be shocked when corporate America lies. The American business mantra has transformed in the past few decades from “the customer is always right,” to “the customer is not only wrong, but stupid and not worthy of respect.”
Think about how many industries are maligned or outright hated by the general public. Telecommunications, insurance, credit and banking, energy, pharmaceuticals, big-box retailers — all have been targets of lawsuits and government intervention because a great many representatives of those industries care only about the almighty dollar. Your well-being means nothing to them, as long as they can keep milking your wallet.
But there is a key difference between them and tobacco: They’re not sins. Tobacco has a reputation nearly on the same level with narcotics nowadays. So it’s OK for politicians to go after. It’s a safe target.
How about the hard targets? If we’re going to step out on this ledge, I’d like to know where the other commercials are, you know, the ones about industries that rob us blind, poison us or just outright kill us in the name of greed.
But those ads won’t come because those companies’ political power is too great. And just like Big Tobacco, they are also well-stocked in the other ingredient necessary for our economic “equation” to never be equal: consumer apathy.
Political critics are fond of saying people get the government they deserve. That is often the case with business as well. As long as people confuse necessity with desire and throw ethics to the wind in the name of convenience, then companies will continue to take advantage of them. And the government will use those injustices to fertilize the fields of power.
E-mail Nate McCullough at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Fridays.