Big Tobacco rolls on, leaving surreal trail of death

The Baltimore Sun

From age 16, my father smoked cigarettes, cigars and a pipe, chewed tobacco and used smokeless tobacco.

That makes the Marlboro man seem like a wimp. Years later, about to become a father, he decided he didn't want his children to smoke and didn't want to be hypocritical.

So, he stopped cold turkey. For good. Never seemed to bother him, though he could devour a king-size pack of chewing gum very quickly.

Encouraging his behavior was my mother, who, in an era before health studies on smoking, often said: "How could sucking smoke into your lungs possibly be good for you? Plus, it makes everything smell!"

I relate all this to point out that I grew up in a smoke-free environment, had no one close to me who smoked and never saw relatives or close friends felled by lung cancer or emphysema.

That has meant some degree of personal disconnect in years of reporting on an industry that remains such a prominent Wall Street investment and mutual fund holding. Tobacco has tremendous cash flow and international potential, even though smoking by U.S. adults declined by one-half between 1950 and 2002.

Globally, one-third of smokers are in China these days. The World Health Organization predicts 70 percent of deaths worldwide from smoking-related illnesses will occur in low- and middle-income countries by 2020.

Despite lawsuits, health warnings, special funds for corrective advertising, and the imposition of taxes and bans on smoking in public buildings, Big Tobacco rolls on.

Over the 12 months through the end of April, the Dow Jones U.S. Tobacco Index rose nearly 26 percent, with Loews Corp.'s Carolina Group up 49 percent, Altria Group Inc. up 25 percent, British American Tobacco PLC up 22 percent and Reynolds American Inc. up 17 percent.

The only vocal investor frustration seems to be that Altria has not spun off Philip Morris International, which is expected to unlock some value in that stock.

In the anti-tobacco camp, the Motion Picture Association of America recently decided to take into account "depictions that glamorize smoking or movies that feature pervasive smoking outside of a historic or other mitigating context."

Smoking becomes a factor alongside violence, profanity, nudity and drug use by the MPAA's Classification and Rating Administration that determines the warnings given to parents.

Thirty-two attorneys general had called for an "R" rating for smoking in films based in part on recommendations from the Harvard School of Public Health. Anti-smoking advocates preferred an automatic "R," which means children under 17 would not be allowed to see such films without a parent or guardian.

The word "surreal" is tossed around too freely. But the 2007 world of Big Tobacco - cohabited by aggressive action against it and aggressive investment in it-- merits that description. It is like no other industry in the world.

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.

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