An Open Letter to Big Tobacco


Dear Big Tobacco,

The year I started smoking habitually was the year a doctor paid by Big Tobacco assured us it was a ‘colossal nonsense’ that smoking causes emphysema. (Horrific experiments on dogs had shown you the truth, but you buried it, along with the poor Beagles). It was 1973,  the year my Uncle Des died from emphysema. He was only 54.

He smoked till the end, cigarettes stashed in his tartan toiletries bag in hospital. ‘What’s the point, I’m done for,’  he would say. And he was done for. They sent him home to die with a big oxygen cylinder to stand like a metal sentinel at the head of the marital bed. My mother, his baby sister, was witness to his last gasping moments, and whispered to me one day that poor Des had ‘drowned in his own fluids’.

She took a deep drag on her silk-tipped Cameo, exhaled and stubbed it out on the steps where we were sitting in the sun together. Both of us would go on to develop emphysema, me in my 30s when I was still a long distance runner, dancer and tennis player.

I miss the body surfing most of all. Catching a big glassy roller and being swept into the shore like a flying fish. These day, with lung disease, I can only go ‘tea-bagging’ at best. Dip, dip and I’m done! Basically, I’m slowly choking to death. Maybe I’ll go like my uncle and drown in my own fluids, or like my mother, whose heart gave out in the night, or even peacefully in my sleep. But I’ve got to say, I wouldn’t be dying right now if I had not smoked.

Which brings me to your product that I used, as directed. You were wrong about smoking not causing emphysema. You called it a ‘colossal nonsense’ back in the ’70s. Now Copd is the third biggest killer in the US and I’m one of the millions of people who woke up this morning struggling to breathe because we used your product, as directed.

I won’t go on. Life’s too short. I don’t want to sue you, although I think the government should shut you down and take your profits because they are the proceeds of crimes against humanity. But they won’t. Governments are addicted to the taxes they reap from you merchants of death.

I had a part in my own downfall, of course. But being a teenager in the ’70s, the world was saturated with ciggie smoke. Even my doctor would light up after doing an examination. Aircraft were silver tubes of fug whizzing through space. The disco was indeed an inferno. We smoked everywhere and anywhere, as you had hoped. Your advertising was effective. Personally I found the Virginia Slims ads tailor-made for me, with the tagline: ‘You’ve come a long way baby!’

I was a rebel without a clue, and I worry that if I was a young woman of today I might even be a smoker. It’s a bit edgy. A bit sexy. A bit transgressive.

Oh but my mouth feels full of ashes when I see a twenty-something, flushed with the unconscious beauty of youth , draw insouciantly on her cigarette and blow out a stream of smoke that curls above her like a Sword of Damocles.

And she goes home and watches Mad Men on TV and all the cool young people are smoking seductively. Ad supremo Don Draper wrote a career suicide note when he attacked Big Tobacco in an open letter to the newspapers. But he kept puffing away, this Adonis who drank whiskey from cut glass crystal, made millions, bedded beautiful women, and smoked his head off. If there is any justice, when they write the last episode of Mad Men, Don Draper will be wearing a nose hose.

Wikipedia has a page  listing celebrity deaths from Copd ( and I see you’ve lost some of your own people. The Reynolds family copd it. Big Tobacco also lost the Marlborough Man from lung cancer and emphysema. What a PR mess. But you managed.

Do you ever think about all those millions of lives cut short by smoking? All those families heartbroken, the Tobacco widows and orphans in their millions? And now you’ve pivoted to Asia. New markets. Fresh victims.

Pull up the tobacco plants, shut down the factories, give up the taxes and free us all from this cruellest scourge. It is a no-brainer. We can’t find a cure for cancer but we can find a cure for all the millions of deaths caused by cigarettes.

The day I finally stopped smoking was when a visiting chest doctor, a kindly Asian man, told me I’d ‘unfortunately’ developed severe emphysema and had the lungs of a 70 year-old. I was 42—the number that is the Meaning of Life in the enigmatic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here I was getting a death sentence and all I could think of was the immortal line, ‘Goodbye and thanks for all the fish’.

Finally, I would not recommend your product.

Anyway Mr Big Tobacco, I forgive you. That’s why I wrote. I needed to be free of Tobacco physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Now I am.

Kind regards,

Barbara, aged 57.

Our ancient enemy . . . The flowers of the tobacco plant, by Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), a German professor of medicine.

Our ancient enemy . . . The flowers of the tobacco plant, by Leonhart Fuchs (1501-1566), a German professor of medicine.


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6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Big Tobacco

  1. Barbara, I am going to put like here because I wanted you to know I did stop and read this letter. I agree in part but not totally. I chose to smoke, when I was a kid I didn’t pay attention to the ads, or the pretty ladies smoking, I did it because everyone else was. But I take complete responsibility for my smoking, I remember standing by a bonfire as a kid and inhaling the smoke, and how it made me cough, my eyes water, and my chest feel like it weighed a ton, and knew it wasn’t the place to stand. So I moved, Yet years later the 1st time I smoked a cigarette, I remember the buzz I got, and the cough, and the heaviness in my chest. It reminded me of that bonfire. I believe I knew from that 1st cigarette it wasn’t good for me but I smoked the 2nd and 2 packs a day, and finally after 35+ years I quit. When I was diagnosed with COPD, I wasn’t surprised, and the 1st thing I did was blame smoking. My doctor didn’t take smoking off the hook for my COPD, but stated it was just a factor which helped in the development, he when on to say in essence that COPD like cancer, and other diseases (even lung cancer) isn’t always caused by smoking, that many people have that COPD gene which almost guarantees at some point an individual could end up with COPD. I have sense read articles in medical journals that supports what my doctor told me. Having said all that your letter was beautiful and it made many valid points. And it reached into my soul and touched me. It is completely and totally true what the big Tobacco Companies did to us, they screwed us, and they went to the bank quick and often because of us. Please don’t think for a second I don’t support what you said. But I wanted you to know that I don’t blame my COPD on my smoking, at least not to the same level you do. Please take care, we are fighting the same fight. Bill

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Bill, thanks for your respectful and intriguing response. I am enjoying our conversations.

    When I started blogging about Copd in April, I knew I would one time write about smoking. As I said, I own my part in my smoking and I also have no wish to exact ‘punishment’ from Big Tobacco. They have nothing I want.

    I am in a place of forgiveness because as my life closes out I don’t want to be angry or resentful at anyone or anything. And I will not be a victim.
    Tobacco will kill one billion people in the 21st century (American Cancer Society). It is the largest preventable cause of death in the world. We just have to pull the plug on cigarettes. Young people start up every second of every day and I’m sure many of us are gutted to see a family member or friend smoking.

    This is not a blame game. As I said, I was a confirmed smoker for 25 years.

    Big Tobacco banked trillions of dollars and hid the fact for as long as possible that smoking was a dangerous and deadly habit. They lobbied politicians to stop them rolling out public health campaigns. They lied and said smoking did not cause emphysema when they had proof it did. (The Insider is a good film about their ruthless tactics).

    I know Copd has other causes (500,000 Malaysians have Copd, many from open cooking fires). Horses get emphysema, coalminers and bakers and others whose lungs are exposed to dust and pollution get emphysema. But the reason Copd is the third biggest killer of Americans, and soon Australians, is because of an epidemic of cigarette smoking. We know smoking turns on an inflammatory response in our lungs, but doctors can’t say why it doesn’t turn off when we stop smoking, even after years of clean living. Once you have Copd, it will not let you go. It will dance you to the end of time.

    I wrote my ‘Open Letter to Big Tobacco’ because The Departure Lounge is an end-of-life journal where I am trying to share my experiences with fellow sufferers and to learn from them. Crippling depression, despair and shame almost always accompany lung disease, and I have learned a few tricks about staying well and happy over the last 17 years since diagnosis.

    Tobacco took my Mum’s life, killed two of my uncles (one aged 54), many of my friends and it will probably be the cause of my premature death.

    I like to apply ‘the Little Green Spaceman’ test to life’s curlier problems.
    So I tell the Little Green Spaceman that smoking has killed more people than all our wars put together. That about 100 million people died from smoking in the 20th century. Many millions more have lingering lung diseases. And when the Little Green Spaceman asks when we stopped making cigarettes, I shake my head sadly and point to a young woman, lighting up.


  3. Barbara,

    I have so enjoyed getting to know you, and I have enjoyed your posts. In my earliest posts I admitted to smoking, and smoking a ton, at that. But I started my blog to write about me and what I was going thru in hopes that it helped others. Trust me I know you’re headed in that direction as well. Early on I made a conscience effort not to spend a considerable amount of time talking about the perils of smoking. As smokers we have known for a long time those perils, we know we should never have started, and we have known for an equally long time that the industry and our government did as much as they could to keep those fires burning. But it has been my opinion that we COPDers have enough on our plates without blaming ourselves. While I always tell folks that smoking played a part in my COPD, I go on saying it may not have been the root cause for me, and it may not be the root cause for them.

    This attitude has allowed me to be upbeat and positive in my approach to reporting my on-going battle with COPD, it (I hope) shows folks that you can deal with it, and you can live with it as long as possible, and that you can be as much a part of life as you choose.

    I admire your letter, it needed to be said, and you said it with style and grace. I would have never written it because I lack your style and grace, but I am grateful you did.

    I know we will be reblogging each other’s work from time to time, and I suspect we will share audiences. I truly look forward to our growing relationship. Take care, Bill

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another fine article Barbara! I well remember buying my first pack of 5 cigarettes – it was on my first pay day. As the new office Junior, I was the one that got to run the errands and so on that first payday I was given a long list of sandwiches and cigarettes to fetch for my co-workers at lunch time. My parents were smokers but had always warned me that I would be in BIG trouble if I smoked before I was a working adult. Being terrified of their wrath I never indulged with schoolmates when they tried it … but on that first pay day I could buy a pack of ciggies without getting into trouble. I was so proud after working through the ciggie list that first day at the shop – “.. and I’ll take 5 Park Drive for myself thank you” .. I had rehearsed it in my head so that when I made my request it would sound casual, ‘grown up’ and cool – as if I had always smoked and this was no big deal for a chick like me … When I got home that night, mum was in the kitchen doing dinner. Dad was sat in ‘his’ chair in the lounge having his cuppa – and I sat on the sofa — lit a ciggie – then started reading the newspaper – or pretending too. I awaited the wrath of mum and dad – would they be true to their word or would I feel that familiar whack around the side of my face from my mothers quick and disaproving hand … “is that a cigarette you are smoking in there Van?” came my mum’s voice from the kitchen (could she see round corners!) “err – yes mum” cough, splutter … “thats fine, but promise never to smoke in bed, you hear me?”, ….”I hear you mum – I promise”….”good girl .. I am proud of you today, you have earned your first pay packet and you have come home and paid your contribution to the running of our home – now you are a real adult and deserve your smokes”. I was so proud – it always stuck in my memory – it wasn’t often I got praise from mum, she was a hard woman and I lived in fear of her… but that day I felt grown up, loved and appreciated – it didn’t matter that the cigarettes tasted vile, made me feel dizzy and sick – I would soon learn how to be a proper smoker…. stay well Barbara and keep ’em coming xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vanessa, what a touching story. Thank you for reflecting on how cigarettes came into your young life. It did feel ‘grown up’ to smoke. You had me in tears to be honest. A Mum who tells her daughter . . . “I am proud of you today . . . now you are a real adult and deserve your smokes”.
      A different time.


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