- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

For the record, Washington lobbyists who represent the alcohol, tobacco and firearms industries — that unholy trinity and font of social maladies — do not meet weekly in a posh downtown restaurant to commiserate with one another and compare casualty rates.

And they do not refer to themselves, not even in jest, as “Merchants of Death.” That is pure literary conceit, concocted by Christopher Buckley for his gleefully wicked satirical novel “Thank You for Smoking,” which has been adapted for the big screen by writer-director Jason Reitman.

The movie, which opens today in area theaters, stars Aaron Eckhart as lobbyist Nick Naylor, an unregenerate, smooth-talking Big Tobacco spin doctor who will stop at nothing to protect his industry’s interests as it twists in the winds of politics and grim medical data.

In blessed contrast to movies like 1999’s “The Insider,” which painted tobacco companies as part of a nefarious, truth-suppressing cabal, “Thank You for Smoking” isn’t out to score partisan points; instead, it skewers the pretensions of the politically correct, having its fun at the expense of that most militant of interest groups, the Health Police.

“Learn to laugh at yourself, you’ll live longer,” says a tobacco-industry lobbyist who found Mr. Buckley’s novel screamingly funny. “People actually enjoy smoking and drinking; that’s why liberals want to outlaw both habits. Anything fun must be illegal.”

The novel “Thank You for Smoking” is 12 years old. Hence, its satire has lost bite in places, if only because what it assigned to the realm of parody has migrated into the realm of reality. For instance, at the movie’s climax, Mr. Eckhart’s Naylor turns the tables on a crunchy-crusader senator from Vermont during a committee hearing by linking the Green Mountain state’s most famous dairy product — cheese — with the scourge of high cholesterol.

As we all know, in the post-“Super Size Me” age of obesity hysteria, cheese and other “harmful” foodstuffs are high atop the Health Police hit list.

Here’s Mike Johnson, vice president of government affairs at the National Beer Wholesalers Association:

“Unfortunately, I have less time to drink beer now than I did before I joined the industry — I’m too busy reminding people that alcohol is a socially sensitive product. That’s why its distribution and sale are treated differently than doughnuts.”

But now that McDonald’s is reviled in some circles as passionately as Philip Morris U.S.A., who can be sure that Krispy Kreme isn’t next?

Still, Mr. Johnson’s larger point, about the degree to which the brewing industry is regulated by federal and state governments, is instructive. Like tobacco companies, the alcohol industry is required to publicly encourage its customers to use its products responsibly, if at all. There are strict guidelines, too, on how beer, liquor and cigarettes may be advertised.

“Thank You for Smoking” is, among other things, a brilliant parody of one of the good government liberal’s favorite straw men — those oily, unbridled Washington insiders who supposedly manipulate our public officials like so many marionettes.

Reality tells a different story, as any habitual smoker who has shivered outside of a Manhattan bar could tell you. The reality is that the unholy trinity is no more powerful, and probably less so, than its more salubrious rivals.

Just last week came the news that cigarette sales in the U.S. declined to a 55-year low last year — a nose dive that began roughly eight years ago when the major tobacco companies agreed to spend $246 billion over 25 years, including on anti-smoking campaigns, as part of its settlement of various state health lawsuits.

Beer manufacturers face trouble not only from tort lawyers but also from an increasingly status-conscious marketplace.

According to a May 2005 report in the online magazine Slate: “U.S. wine sales have risen smartly in recent years, from 558 million gallons in 2000 to 627 million gallons in 2003. Meanwhile, the young and hip — traditionally the biggest consumers of beer — are looking for harder stuff. Club-goers want less Molson Ice and more Maker’s Mark.”

There is also the court of public opinion and the bully pulpit of popular culture. Here, too, the unholy trinity has stiff competition.

National Rifle Association members may write letters to the editor; the filmmaker Michael Moore, in turn, can make an Oscar-winning anti-gun documentary like “Bowling for Columbine.”

Ultimately, Mr. Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” doesn’t defend the wriggling deceptions of lobbyists; rather, it insists on the moral prerogative of the individual to consume, or not consume — risks and all — products that human beings have enjoyed for centuries.

At some point in a country where the per-capita alcohol intake hovers around 25 gallons annually, the Health Police are not at war with Merchants of Death. They’re at war with human nature.

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