THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – March 7, 1997
Liggett owns up.
SEEING A LIE UPENDED can be great entertainment. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” the Wizard of Oz pleads frantically as Toto reveals the homely truth. In “Casablanca,” Captain Renault delivers the movies’ other great salute to brazen deception:“I’m shocked, shocked,” Claude Rains tells Humphrey Bogart at Rick’s night-club casino, “to find that gambling is going on in here.” And in the new hit comedy “Liar Liar” Jim Carrey plays Fletcher Reede, a professional dissembler—that is, a lawyer—who for one magical day must speak only the truth.
The day before “Liar Liar” opened, the Liggett Group had a Fletcher Reede moment. At a press conference in Washington, Liggett, the smallest of the country’s Big Five tobacco companies, announced that (a) nicotine is addictive, (b) cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, and (c) tobacco companies deliberately market cigarettes to teen-agers.
Duh. But the news here was not the familiar facts that the tobacco company was owning up to. It was the fact that a tobacco company was owning up to them. The attorneys general of twenty-two states had sued the Big Five, and Liggett had decided to turn state’s evidence, so to speak. Its confession was part of the bargain. So was a pledge that every Liggett cigarette pack—L&M, Lark, Chesterfield (the brand that helped kill Bogart)—will soon carry its own bit of simple honesty: “smoking is addictive.”
Like Fletcher Reede, Bennett LeBow, who is Liggett’s corporate boss, had been a happy, high-spirited work- aday liar. In the course of an earlier anti-cigarette lawsuit, in 1993, he was deposed by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Stanley Rosenblatt. LeBow played the role of hardboiled villain with evident relish. When Rosenblatt started to say, “If I asked you, does smoking cause lung cancer—” LeBow snapped back, “I don’t know.”
O.K., and you really don’t care, because you’re selling a legal product.
. . . [T]hat kind of issue is somebody else’s battle, and you’re going to do your thing, as long as it’s legal to do it.
That is correct.
And make as much money as you can while you’re doing it.
I’m a businessman.
LeBow’s apostasy, according to LeBow, “was a business, a moral, and a personal decision.” The moral part seems to have been driven by the business part: Liggett, despite the advantage of having an addictive product, is an unprofitable company, and has a negative net worth. In a statement issued by the public-relations department of R. J. Reynolds on behalf of Reynolds, Philip Morris, Lorillard, and Brown & Williamson, LeBow’s more prosperous former confederates accused him of being motivated by, of all things, self-interest. “We suspect,” the Bigger Four said darkly, “a desperate attempt to force one of the other cigarette manufacturers to take over his financially troubled and failing tobacco interests.”
In other words, they were shocked, shocked—and right, too, probably. LeBow is no conscience-stricken whistle-blower but a snitch usefully squeezed by his weakened circumstances into telling the truth—less a Jim Carrey, or a Tom Cruise (in “Jerry Maguire”), than, say, a William H. Macy (in “Fargo”). But at least he is someone who has appreciated the exquisitely absurd position that tobacco executives find themselves in. Two years ago, a little-remembered Off Broadway comedy revue entitled “Loose Lips”included a version of the deposition scene above, with actors playing the parts of LeBow and Rosenblatt. One night, the real-life LeBow came, with members of his family, to see himself satirized. He laughed uproariously at the scabrous portrayal—Hey, I stonewalled! Under oath! That’s funny!—and after the show he had his picture taken with the cast.
LeBow probably thinks of himself as a corporate Captain Renault, a soigné rascal who, for his own complicated, compromised reasons, does the right thing in the end. Yet a depressing kind of automatic Renaultism—a thoroughly jaded presumption and acceptance of all lies all the time—has become the American norm. The unravelling of the tobacco companies’ “conspiracy of lies and deception,” as Arizona’s attorney general called it, is, of course, heartening. But before the anti-tobacco missionaries become too smug perhaps they should be required to admit a central disingenuousness of their own; namely, the suggestion that smokers smoke because tobacco companies have fooled them into thinking that smoking isn’t bad for you. For the last third of a century, has any sentient American, smoker or non, really considered the tobacco industry a better source of health advice than the Surgeon General? Liar liar.