While Rome burns

When I was a kid, it was considered quite proper to give your father a carton of cigarettes for Christmas. And, years later, my mother-in-law, who was a doctor, told me that the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company used to send cartons of Camels to physicians of all types (including pediatricians), in order to make good on their much-publicized claim that “more doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette.”

Now, of course, we all know the truth about cigarettes — or do we?

I have before me an advertising insert from Entertainment Weekly, titled “Winston Racing Nation: No Bull. No Boundaries.”

It’s very up-market and could easily appear in Vogue or House Beautiful — except that end-of-the-line teenagers generally don’t read those magazines.

The advertisement opens to a two-page spread dominated by a black-and-white photo with the tag line, “We are united by freedom and a passion for racing.” In very small type, it says, “Restricted to smokers 21 years of age or older.” Once again, “No Bull” is prominent, and a cleverly constructed layout ensures that the eye will be drawn to the photo — not to the surgeon-general’s warning.

And what a photo.

In the foreground is a boxer dog wearing a checkered scarf. Behind him, to the right, a very attractive, slim young lady is drinking beer, or maybe soda. Behind her are two men — one with a shaved head, the other mostly screened by the first — and, behind them, a smiling 21-year-old holding a beer.

There are five more people to the right of them, all slim; the only one whose face is showing is young and attractive, and all of them are smoking. No one in the pix is ill-dressed, or overweight, or over, let’s say, 25 years of age. They’re on somebody’s back porch, watching an auto race on television.

Now, let’s turn the page.

This time, the headline proclaims: “We are free to make noise. We are free to be ourselves.”

Here, the gang is tailgating — all smoking (or holding cigarettes), all young, slim and attractive.

The next page features the headline: “We are free to disagree with everyone and bum a smoke from anyone. We are the citizens of the Winston Racing Nation. Join Us.”

Here, the photo shows a slim young man handing a pack of Winstons to another young, slim person wearing headphones.

Finally, on the back of the flier, we see five young people, arm in arm, apparently leaving a racetrack — with not an overweight rear in the bunch. The tag line reads: “Let freedom roar.” (They missed a great opportunity for an explanation point here.)

Naturally, there’s no litter in any of these photographs — Not Even A Cigarette Butt! And Nobody Is Fat! It’s a beautiful world — when you smoke.

But, hey, this doesn’t target teenagers. No? Then who is it targeting?

Is anybody out there watching?

Now, let’s switch to Camels.

Their new ad features a very, very attractive blond cigarette girl, selling Camels to four very young, very handsome musicians dressed in white formal wear (with black ties), all smiling, all smoking “– with pleasure to burn.”

They’re in a fancy nightclub, where well-dressed patrons sit around drinking martinis, smoking to beat the band (of course).

Finally, at the end of the ad, comes an announcement about “Camel Exotic Blends, each designed to perfectly complement our legendary Turkish and domestic tobaccos.”

They are Crema (with a hint of vanilla), Rare (made from the top 1 percent of the tobacco crop), Twist (a blend of tobacco with a refreshing splash of citrus), and Samsun (featuring a delicate and fragrant Turkish leaf, exotic yet mellow).

And, in a final blast of arrogance, the medical warning here is directed at pregnant women who smoke.

Who’s trying to fool whom?

No wonder more teenagers are starting to smoke again: They’re getting the same treatment from the tobacco companies that the diet industry uses to peddle an endless string of sure-fire weight-loss potions and products. Ironically, it’s also the same message that was used to sell previous generations on smoking:

Smokers are the beautiful people. Smokers call the shots. Smokers are sophisticated — they’re cool, they’re casual, they’re top of the line …

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