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Tom Rogers and the Philip Morris Tollway

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Native American folklore says that Coyote will outlive us all and be the last survivor on earth

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The Year of No Safe Thing: Philip Morris and the Lesson of Ultra lights
2003 should be a great year for my phobias.

If thoughts of Ricin smeared on a Disneyland turnstile, shoulder launched stinger missiles aimed at flights out of John Wayne Airport and snipers picking off patrons at Fashion Island aren't enough to stimulate my phobic nerve, there's always the fear nugget of federal agents intercepting my email after detecting the terrorist code words "dope" and "Bush."

But in case these outbreaks of acute information awareness don't fill me with enough existential dread, I can always replay the day last week when I found out about Philip Morris's emblematic if not historic announcement. I'll repeat it for those of you peering though a different code red news hole.

"There is no such thing as a safe cigarette."

I found out about this breach in our national security in a decidedly lo-tech way. It wasn't on the internet, TV or radio, but rather in the gravel parking lot behind the Gypsy Den when my friend Kitty cracked a pack of Benson & Hedges. Fluttering to the ground as I stood nearby was a parchment certificate with an embossed Philip Morris logo. Kitty picked it up.

"There is no such thing as a safe cigarette," she read aloud.

"The tar and nicotine yield numbers are not meant to communicate the amount of tar or nicotine actually inhaled by any smoker, as individuals do not smoke like the machine used in the government test method."

Kitty's eyes widened as she tried to suppress a nervous mechanical laugh.

"You should not assume," Kitty and the warning continued, "that cigarette brands using descriptors like 'Ultra Light', 'Light', 'Medium' or 'Mild' are less harmful than 'full flavor' cigarette brands or that smoking such cigarette brands will help you quit smoking."

"Thank God for that," Kitty quipped and fired one up.

"If you are concerned about the health effects of smoking," the warning from Phillip Morris concluded, "you should quit."

As we marveled at Morris's pragmatic punchline, a fear twisted through me not unlike the spinal twinge induced in the movie "Marathon Man" when Sir Lawrence Olivier's character asks "Is it safe?" His question is an award-winning anxiety disorder moment because the answer is clear. "No it is not.

For better or worse, most of the entire civilized world reckoned years ago that there is no such thing as a safe cigarette or for that matter a safe car, boat, train, cup of coffee, hair dye, visit to the dentist, electric socket, Christmas tree, dog, camping trip, peanut butter sandwich or appointment to the Supreme Court — just to name a few.

Safety, after all, is a relative thing. Knotts Berry Farm's Perilous Plunge was a "safe" ride, until a thrill seeker with a 58-inch waist squirted out of the lap bar, and perilously plunged 115 feet to her death. The World Trade Center was a "safe" building complex… until it became a doorway to heaven for a fucked-up group of true believers filled with passionate intensity.

I would even go so far as to say that if all things were safe, we'd have at lot less use for religion. But they're not and we don't.

Which brings me back to Philip Morris. I envision the day, perhaps within my lifetime — perhaps later this year — when a little parchment warning note comes fluttering out of everything — oak trees, ceramic surfing monkeys, waterfalls, solar eclipses, fountain pens, valentines and newborns. On it would be the all-encompassing safety disclaimer: "There is no such thing as a safe life."

— Nathan Callahan, February 14, 2003


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