I graduated with a degree in magazine journalism and did the next logical thing: I took a sales job as a tobacco minion. Not just any tobacco minion, but a minion at the mother of all mothers of tobacco companies, Philip Morris. (I still say “Philip Morris,” because “Altria”—a name some PR genius conjured up so the company could sell cigarettes and Kraft singles simultaneously—sounds like an Eastern European exchange student who smells like snot and yeast.) Phillip Morris didn’t exactly make it rain Benjamins, but they offered me more money than any entry-level journalism job could. I happily relocated to New York City to live in a swanky corporate apartment, drive around in a company car, and escape the miserable, broke years of post-grad life that so many of my friends are still struggling through. (Side note: Income and spending are directly correlated. The more I made, the more I spent, the more I felt like I was poor, the more I felt like I could never leave. Well, you get the point.)
I liked it. Or at least some aspects of it. Whenever I would meet new people, I would announce myself as the face of evil simply by saying that “I sell tobacco.” My friend liked to call the big reveal my “trump card.” But it’s a pretty pathetic trump card, if you ask me. When people would ask about my job and if I smoked, I would lie about lurking around schools to recruit potential eight-year-old smokers and assure them that I knew cigarettes lead to a slow and miserable death—or worse, bad skin. And I would roll my eyes when they would ask if I had seen Thank You For Smoking or if they unoriginally called me the “female Nick Naylor.” I defended myself; I defended Marlboro.
In graduate school, paid for by tobacco money, a professor posed a hypothetical to my class, “Is it OK to work for a beer company?” Everyone nodded and agreed there would be no issue. He concurred, then expanded, “Well, is it OK to work for a tobacco company?” He said this in the same tone I imagine someone asking, “Do you believe in killing your unborn child?” instead of asking in a tone of, “Do you believe in abortion?” A tone that leaves a lot of room for debate. A tone that doesn’t make the issue so black-and-white.
The class, of course, immediately said no, and that pissed me off. I raised my hand and said, “I work for a tobacco company. I don’t think it’s more wrong than working for, say, McDonald’s.”
He disagreed. He said that while every cigarette harms you, every hamburger doesn’t. We argued for a bit before he claimed victory using the “I’m older than you therefore I’m right” logic. I think anyone who’s seen Food, Inc. or is aware that McDonald's sprays ammonia on its burgers to get rid of e-coli while blatantly pushing their slop onto children could easily see that giving them the moral high ground over cigarettes is kind of ridiculous.
He was right about one thing, though: You shouldn’t work for a tobacco company. But not for the reason that he thought. Ethics have nothing to do with it. Selling tobacco is no different from selling beer to frat boys hoping to get the latest class of freshmen drunk. Where there is demand, supply shall exist. The people behind it aren’t great masterminds trying to take over the world. I wish. That would’ve been more fun. It was quite the opposite. Simple minds run companies like Phillip Morris. It is controlled by obnoxious men who’ve worked there for 30-plus years because selling an addictive product that essentially sells itself is a lazy man’s jackpot.
You shouldn’t work for a tobacco company, because it’s miserable. You know that reoccurring dream you get where you feel so heavy and you’re trying to move or run but you’re not getting anywhere? And you scream for help, but your voice doesn’t make a sound? And everything is dark? And even when you wake up, you can’t shake off what just happened in your subconscious? You move slower, picking up your feet as if the floor beneath you suddenly turned into quicksand. That’s what it was like working at Philip Morris.
This reoccurring dream, however, consumed 40 hours of my week. I watched as the CEO’s son, whose double-digit IQ shouldn’t even have qualified him to pump gasoline—let alone lead a corporate team—was given a promotion over half a dozen more qualified candidates. I listened to mediocre cum jokes from an over-the-hill, twice-demoted middle manager after he had one too many scotch-and-waters at the company sales meetings. I nodded along when management gave a verbal blowjob to one of the executives who decided to take $2 or $3 off the slower-moving brands’ prices to sell more product, as I thought, Brava! Congratulations, you figured out what the bodega owner already knew after two weeks of being in business. This is also the same executive whose eyes didn't make it above my neck when he first met me, the same executive who would later be named a “person of interest” in a woman’s disappearance.
I lied all summer to bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, tobacco-executive-wannabe college juniors about how wonderful it was to work at Philip Morris. “This is such a great company; there is so much opportunity to move up…” The truth was, if you weren’t ready to sign your life away, you weren’t ready for the ultra sexy title of “tobacco executive.” Unless of course you were the product of some incestuous recruiting habit, the friend of the brother of some big client’s kid.
The highlight of my career as a tobacco minion was the day I left.
A few weeks ago I was at a live taping of The Colbert Report, and ironically shelved, next to all things American, was a carton of cowboys’ favorite cigarettes—Marlboro Reds. I smirked, remembering the days I left behind. Tobacco isn’t evil; corporate America just sucks. I would’ve had the same encounters—the same corporate inbred stupidity and the same sleazy old men—whether I sold Chantix, the smoking cessation drug, or whether I sold the latest Marlboro line extension. And, unlike self-righteous professors accepting tainted tobacco dollars to sell graduate degrees, no one in tobacco is delusional.