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  • Published: 31 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781760890155
  • Imprint: Hamish Hamilton
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 368
  • RRP: $34.99

Puff Piece

Extract

THE DOOHICKEY

I pull into Doncaster Park ’n’ Ride, in north-eastern Melbourne. The man told me to meet him here. The place sounded like a waterslide park, maybe with a few other attractions, like dodgem cars and a ferris wheel. But now that I’m here, 10.30 at night, I see it’s a bus terminal. Powerful streetlamps render the view out my windscreen dreamlike, drizzle sparkling up the asphalt, giant train-set trees bordering the carpark. You park your car here and ride a bus to work. No fairy floss.

You know those Fast and the Furious–looking cars? Where the dude can’t afford a Ferrari so he’s pimped up a Subaru? One of those slow-rolls into the carpark and pulls up alongside me. I wrap up the audio notes I’m recording: ‘So anyway, when someone does a true crime podcast about my murder in Doncaster Park ’n’ Ride, they’ll be able to play this. It will be haunting.’

A man, I’m guessing university-student age, steps into the hyperreal light, continuing the film trailer vibe. He’s Asian, so now it’s the third instalment of the franchise, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Despite his eBay name – JapShop – he turns out to be Chinese. Makes sense: middle-class Doncaster is one-quarter Chinese.

JapShop is immaculately groomed. He wears a denim jacket covered in red words, giving the effect they’ve been painted on with lipstick. Later, typing up this encounter, I’ll wish I could remember those words, but in the moment I’m disoriented – this being the first time I’ve bought contraband out of the boot of a car.

JapShop passes a white box through my window. I peel off the shrink wrap, open it at the hinge and there it is. My little baby Jesus, resting in a little manger: the IQOS.

‘Like an iPhone,’ JapShop tells me breathlessly. Right down to the I.

The packaging makes you think of Apple. The IQOS itself looks like a fat pen, which slides into a charger you can fit in your palm. This is Philip Morris’s take on the future of smoking; importantly, they say it’s not a vape.

This afternoon I sat with an old school friend, who knows science, and threw questions at him about the claims Philip Morris make about the IQOS. That’s when I realised I needed the device itself – I can’t just spend a whole book poring over sheets of paper with technical specifications. The problem was that it’s illegal to sell the IQOS in Australia. I hit up Reddit, Craigslist and Gumtree, before finding JapShop offering one on eBay for $290. That’s more than twice the price of buying one over the counter in New Zealand, where they’re legal.

In the carpark, JapShop has something else for me. Through the drizzle, he passes me a box of HeatSticks. A HeatStick is what you slot into the IQOS and bring to your lips. The device is pointless without these – a turtle shell without a turtle. I pull one out, roll it about in my fingers, hold it to the moon.

That’s when it hits me. Why nearly all of Philip Morris’s promotion is about the IQOS, not these HeatSticks.

It’s a classic magician’s trick: misdirection. Making you look over there so you don’t catch what’s actually going on over here. Philip Morris want you to focus on the IQOS, ponder its shape, its feel, its electronics. Where does the USB cord go? What does the flashing light mean? This is like nothing you’ve quite seen before.

They don’t want you to focus on the HeatStick, because you’ll almost certainly ask straight away: ‘Doesn’t this look like a cigarette?’

 

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD

The European Parliament locks in the date. On Wednesday 20 May, 2020, Brit, Dane, Pole, Cypriot and Finn will wake up to a land where the menthol cigarette is forbidden. It’s over. They’re dodos. Not just the extinction of an entire category of smokes, but the ones that most often dangle from the lips of the young.

The world’s largest cigarette company, Philip Morris International, most famous for the Marlboro brand, agrees to stop selling menthol cigarettes. Then they add that, by the way, they have a new product. It’s not a menthol cigarette, they assure everyone. It’s a menthol HeatStick. But a HeatStick is just tobacco rolled in paper with a filter at one end. You know, like a cigarette.

HeatSticks come in packs of twenty, the box emblazoned with the warning ‘Smoking is a Major Cause of Stroke’ and a nauseating photo of a damaged brain. Like a cigarette pack.

Slotting it into the IQOS, you puff on one of these HeatSticks like you’d puff on a cigarette, drawing nicotine and tobacco into your lungs. After you’re finished, you flick the HeatStick into the bin or onto the ground. Like you’d flick a cigarette butt into the bin or onto the ground.

So why isn’t this a cigarette? Because Philip Morris International says it’s not.

Surely it won’t be that easy? Wise lawmakers have spent years in committees, drafting legislation, determined to ban menthol cigarettes. Philip Morris agrees to abide by the new law, but then announces they have a new menthol ciga . . . err . . . HeatStick!

HeatStick. A brand-new word. A word that wasn’t here last year.

I thought new words squeezed into the world from the ground up, grassroots and organic. That’s from growing up with hip-hop blasting from a boom box bought with my bar-mitzvah money. Def, b-boy, 24/7, cold lampin’, gas face, scratching the wheels of steel and right up to your face and diss you. Where did these peculiar and delicious words come from, before they ended up in the mouths of rappers? Nobodies-in-particular, patients zero slouching on a couch somewhere in America, impossible to track down now, shooting the breeze. Toying with language while not thinking about it. Crunching down words already in circulation. Brewing in-jokes. Verbing nouns and nouning verbs. These words either catch fire or they don’t. The ones that do – their fumes float from a couch, up the street and spread all over town. Next thing you know, CNN’s business correspondent is telling you the head of the Federal Reserve just dissed the airline industry and shares in Delta Air will plunge fo’ shizzle.

‘HeatStick’ wasn’t birthed this way. This word is not grassroots or organic, it’s top-down and calculated. It’s been created and deployed to change the meaning of what a cigarette is and isn’t. Which, in turn, can change facts in the flesh-and-blood world. Soon, if things go Philip Morris’s way, a Spaniard, otherwise prohibited from doing so, will be able to smoke a menthol cigarette that isn’t one. A Fleming can go on phlegming.

Over the coming months I’ll learn that this is not just a one-off tactic to try to slip by the European ban – warping language is Philip Morris’s number-one wangle.

Words hold power. A phrase so overused it has itself lost much of its power. Still, it’s no less true. I’ve been clobbered with this concept since Sunday School: according to kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism, God created the universe by breathing words. And, the Jewish mystics teach, we too can build and bend realities, like God has. Not with piping, mud and scaffolding, but with words.

Philip Morris, the Goliath of a dying industry, will either collapse and turn to dust or live to battle on. It all pivots on corporate kabbalah, breathing words into the world, hoping they catch alight and reshape reality.

Care factor zero

There’s a layer to all this that’s messing with my head. How do I know about HeatSticks in the first place? Not through the mainstream news or the counterculture news. Yes, they’ve (lightly) reported that menthol cigarettes are dead, but not that Philip Morris is poised to slink on through a loophole. I’ve set up Google News alerts for all the relevant terms, so, over the months, I’ve caught the only news outlets interested in this part of the story: trade magazines aimed at 7-Eleven and other convenience stores. They’re telling owners to prepare to substitute in menthol HeatSticks for menthol cigarettes.

Philip Morris International is a Fortune 500 company, the biggest player in an industry that snuffs out 8 million lives a year. A Holocaust and a quarter per annum. Beyond that, a relentless strain on the health system; each year in Australia, 1.7 million hospital admissions are smoking related. Considering this, shouldn’t someone be interested in Philip Morris’s little word game besides the bloke behind the counter next to the Slurpee machine? I’m interested in why no one is interested.

The greatest story ever told

To understand all this, we need to wind back.

May 30, 2018. Philip Morris publicises a brand-new gambit. A galling gambit, it’s a jaw-dropper – and not their usual one where they give you cancer of the jaw and it falls off.

I’m seeing their gambit through the eyes of a storyteller. That same day, a grey Sydney Wednesday, I have been hired to sit in a boardroom with ten other writers and plot out an action-drama television series. The Venetian blinds are snapped shut. A plate of chocolate minibars sits in the middle of the boardroom table and I am deciding if enough time has elapsed since I last reached in to grab another.

The key to writing action-drama is that the hero or the villain must be cornered into an impossible situation, where there is no apparent escape. In this writers’ room, someone has determined that our villain, a skinhead, will be trapped down an alley, facing off with a cop with a gun. The skinhead has no weapon. He’s screwed. There’s no way out of this.

From there we, the writers, have to dig deep. Flex our imaginations. Draw on all our creative wiles to hatch an escape plan for him. Something so ingenious, so lateral, that the audience never sees it coming.

I come up with it! The skinhead forces his fingers down his own throat. He throws up on the cop and, in that moment of disgust and confusion, he darts up the alley and escapes. Against all odds, he lives to fight another day. I pluck a Snickers minibar from the plate.

Back to Philip Morris’s gambit. I see the creative minds there have also been plotting in a boardroom, squeaking fat black markers on butcher’s paper. Philip Morris had also found themselves with a villain cornered in an impossible spot, where there was no apparent escape. That villain was themselves.

Philip Morris are part of a wheezing, dying industry. They’re forbidden from advertising. Governments banished cigarettes from pubs around fifteen years ago, but if Philip Morris thought that would be the depth of their woes they were wrong. Smoking bans are reaching deeper into public and private space; the American company U-Haul will not hire people who smoke, full stop. Not after hours, not at home. Prospective employees must consent to drug testing for nicotine.

Shareholders in Philip Morris are noting news like this. And things are about to escalate. Significant dates loom. In Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, the council has banned the sale of cigarettes, effective 2021. It’s the first city in the United States to do so. Philip Morris fears this could be the tipping point, that this is a new trend set to blaze through America then the rest of the world.

Philip Morris need to dig deep, flex their imagination. Come up with something ingenious.

And they deliver.

Philip Morris have come up with The Greatest Story Ever Told. A plot twist so audacious, no one ever saw it coming. The day they publicise this new gambit, 30 May, is significant. It’s the eve of United Nations’ World No Tobacco Day. Philip Morris have bought full-page advertisements in newspapers. Prepare to be dazzled but, more than that, befuddled.

In these ads, Philip Morris announce they plan to shut down as a cigarette company. They’re going to relaunch as anti-smoking campaigners, dedicated to convincing the world’s billion smokers to quit cigarettes.

‘We’re Moving Away From Cigarettes, What About You?’ trumpets the bold blue headline. ‘We’ve made the decision to build our future without cigarettes . . . No cigarette company has done anything like this before. But the vision is clear. And the benefits are clear too. For everyone.’ Their clarion call is that they are going to ‘unsmoke’ the world.

‘Unsmoke’. Another word that wasn’t here last year that Philip Morris now whispers into the universe.

What they’re planning sounds momentous. Historical. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death; Philip Morris is the world’s largest cigarette company. It’s all coming to an end, and of their own accord? This begs comparisons to South Africa’s apartheid regime throwing in the towel in 1994, conceding that their whole operation was an evil and unsustainable sham.

What on God’s green earth is going on?

The next day – World No Tobacco Day – the writers’ room rolls on. We’ve lost our inhibitions and are descending into an animalistic state, grabbing mini chocolate bars at twice the rate as the day before. Philip Morris are back today too, with another full-page advertisement. They tell us they’re not going to be passive observers in the revolution. They’re here to help.

‘One billion people will start World No Tobacco Day with a cigarette. We believe people should stop smoking, and support measures to dissuade people from starting. That said, people who continue to use cigarettes deserve a better choice. They should be able to switch to alternatives that are likely to be less harmful than continuing to smoke. Why would anyone deny them this opportunity?’

That last line is a little passive-aggressive. Suddenly we might be the arseholes, not the cancer-bestowing multinational.

So, they are selling us something. Nothing wrong with that, if it helps. What is this alternative to smoking? Philip Morris says they have spent $4.5 billion, hired more than 400 scientists, engineers and technicians, and developed a new doohickey.

This doohickey is the IQOS. It’s a – well what is it? I fold open my laptop in the writers’ room. A photo online shows something sleek, blue and metallic-looking, roughly the length of a cigarette and a little fatter. It looks like a pen an astronaut would have, I suppose. Or at least a pen a model done up as an astronaut for a fashion shoot would have. It sits next to a matching charging device that’s rectangular, with curved corners, also blue and metallic-looking. The pen slides into this charger and the whole package fits into your hand. If I saw a woman holding one on a red carpet I’d assume it’s some sort of compact or tampon case that I’m unfamiliar with because I don’t read Vogue.

‘IQOS is a tobacco heating system,’ Philip Morris explains. ‘Thanks to sophisticated electronics IQOS heats specially designed heated tobacco units up to 350°C without combustion.’ Combustion is one of those words where I think I know what it means until I have to explain it. If someone, right now, said ‘Define combustion in the next thirty seconds or your father combusts,’ he’s combusting.

Okay, I looked it up. Combustion is the act or the process of burning. Philip Morris don’t reveal it here but by ‘heated tobacco unit’ they mean a HeatStick, the item that looks suspiciously like a cigarette, only shorter. You slot this into the hole at the tip of the pen. The HeatStick’s filter remains jutting out and you bring it to your lips and huff. Philip Morris says that the IQOS heats but never burns this HeatStick. As a result, it doesn’t generate smoke, it generates aerosol. Your lungs draw in nicotine and tobacco, but because it’s through this aerosol, ‘the levels of harmful chemicals are significantly reduced compared to cigarette smoke’.

So, no more smoke, with its deadly carcinogens. Smoke is the villain of the cigarette and this has none. Imagine all the lives saved by moving smokers off cigarettes and onto IQOS.

‘Our studies on IQOS are progressing rapidly . . . and indicate that it has the potential to present less risk of harm.’

A few days later, rereading this material, I realise Philip Morris don’t quite say what I took them to say. They don’t claim that IQOS will save lives – they’ve given themselves wiggle-room.

‘Our studies on IQOS are progressing [so not completed] . . . and indicate that it has the potential [so something could be proven in the future but hasn’t been proven right now] to present less risk of harm [So there’s still some risk of harm. What type?].’

In fact, any more wiggles and Philip Morris could tour schools with Dorothy the Dinosaur.


Puff Piece John Safran

Wild, hilarious and thought-provoking, Puff Piece is a probing look into Big Tobacco and the vaping industry, and how words can be literally a matter of life and death.

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