Do You Want Lies with That?
Don't do it. Please. I know this book looks delicious, with its lightweight pages sliced thin as prosciutto and swiss, stacked in a way that would make Dagwood salivate. The scent of freshly baked words wafting up with every turn of the page. Mmmm, page. But don't do it. Not yet. Don't eat this book.
We turn just about everything you can imagine into food. You can eat coins, toys, cigars, cigarettes, rings, necklaces, lips, cars, babies, teeth, cameras, film, even underwear (which come in a variety of scents, sizes, styles and flavors). Why not a book?
In fact, we put so many things in our mouths, we constantly have to be reminded what not to eat. Look at that little package of silicon gel that's inside your new pair of sneakers. It says do not eat for a reason. Somewhere, sometime, some genius bought a pair of sneakers and said, "Ooooh, look. They give you free mints with the shoes!"—soon followed, no doubt, by the lawsuit charging the manufacturer with negligence, something along the lines of, "Well, it didn't say not to eat those things."
And thus was born the "warning label." To avoid getting sued, corporate America now labels everything. Thank the genius who first decided to take a bath and blow-dry her hair at the same time. The Rhodes scholar who first reached down into a running garbage disposal. That one-armed guy down the street who felt around under his power mower while it was running.
Yes, thanks to them, blow-dryers now come with the label do not submerge in water while plugged in. Power mowers warn keep hands and feet away from moving blades. And curling irons bear tags that read for external use only.
And that's why I warn you—please!—do not eat this book. This book is for external use only. Except maybe as food for thought.
We live in a ridiculously litigious society. Opportunists know that a wet floor or a hot cup of coffee can put them on easy street. Like most of you, I find many of these lawsuits pointless and frivolous. No wonder the big corporations and the politicians they own have been pushing so hard for tort reform.
Fifty years ago it was a different story. Fifty years ago, adult human beings were presumed to have enough sense not to stick their fingers in whirring blades of steel. And if they did, that was their own fault.
Take smoking. For most of us, the idea that "smoking kills" is a given. My mom and dad know smoking is bad, but they don't stop. My grandfather smoked all the way up until his death at a grand old age, and my folks are just following in his footsteps—despite the terrifying warning on every pack.
They're not alone, of course. It's estimated that over a billion people in the world are smokers. Worldwide, roughly 5 million people died from smoking in 2000. Smoking kills 440,000 Americans every year. All despite that surgeon general's warning on every single pack.
What is going on here? It's too easy to write off all billion-plus smokers as idiots with a death wish. My parents aren't idiots. I don't think they want to die. (When I was younger, there were times when I wanted to kill them, but that's different.) We all know that tobacco is extremely addictive. And that the tobacco companies used to add chemicals to make cigarettes even more addictive, until they got nailed for it. And that for several generations—again, until they got busted for it—the big tobacco companies aimed their marketing and advertising at kids and young people. Big Tobacco spent billions of dollars to get people hooked as early as they could, and to keep them as "brand-loyal" slaves for the rest of their unnaturally shortened lives. Cigarettes were cool, cigarettes were hip, cigarettes were sexy. Smoking made you look like a cowboy or a movie starlet.
And it worked. When my parents were young, everybody smoked. Doctors smoked. Athletes smoked. Pregnant women smoked. Their kids came out of the womb looking around the delivery room for an ashtray to ash their Lucky Strikes. Everyone smoked.
The change began in 1964, when the first surgeon general's warning about smoking and cancer scared the bejesus out of everybody. In 1971, cigarette ads were banned from TV, and much later they disappeared from billboards. Little by little, smoking was restricted in airplanes and airports, in public and private workplaces, in restaurants and bars. Tobacco sponsorship of sporting events decreased. Tighter controls were placed on selling cigarettes to minors. Everyone didn't quit overnight, but overall rates of smoking began to decrease—from 42 percent of adults in 1965 to 23 percent in 2000, and from 36 percent of high school kids in 1997 to 29 percent in 2001. The number of adults who have never smoked more than doubled from 1965 to 2000.
Big tobacco companies knew it was a war they couldn't win, but they didn't give up without a fight. They threw billions and billions of more dollars into making smoking look cool, hip, sexy—and safe. They targeted new markets, like women, who increased their rate of smoking 400 percent after the surgeon general's report. Yeah, you've come a long way, baby—all the way from the kitchen to the cancer ward. They expanded their markets in the Third World and undeveloped nations, getting hundreds of millions of people hooked; it's estimated that more than four out of five current smokers are in developing countries. As if people without a regular source of drinking water didn't have enough to worry about already. Big Tobacco denied the health risks of smoking, lied about what they were putting into cigarettes and lobbied like hell against every government agency or legislative act aimed at curbing their deadly impact.
Which brings me back to those "frivolous" lawsuits. Back when people were first suing the tobacco companies for giving them cancer, a lot of folks scoffed. (And coughed. But they still scoffed.) Smokers knew the dangers of smoking, everyone said. If they decided to keep smoking for thirty, forty years and then got lung cancer, they couldn't blame the tobacco companies.
Then a funny thing happened. As the lawsuits progressed, it became more and more apparent that smokers did not know all the dangers of smoking. They couldn't know, because Big Tobacco was hiding the truth from them—lying to them about the health risks, and lying about the additives they were putting in cigarettes to make them more addictive. Marketing cigarettes to children, to get them hooked early and keep them puffing away almost literally from the cradle to the early grave, among other nefarious dealings.
In the mid-1990s, shouldering the crushing burden of soaring Medicare costs due to smoking-related illnesses, individual states began to imitate those "ambulance-chasers," bringing their own class-action lawsuits against Big Tobacco. In 1998, without ever explicitly admitting to any wrongdoing, the big tobacco companies agreed to a massive $246 billion settlement, to be paid to forty-fix states and five territories over twenty-five years. (The other four states had already settled in individual cases.)
Two hundred and forty-six billion dollars is a whole lot of frivolous, man.
What these lawsuits drove home was the relationship between personal responsibility and corporate responsibility. Suddenly it was apparent that sticking a cigarette in your mouth was not quite the same thing as sticking those sneaker mints in your mouth. No one spent billions and billions of dollars in marketing, advertising and promotions telling that guy those sneaker mints would make him cool, hip and sexy. Big Tobacco did exactly that to smokers.
Still, a lot of people were skeptical about those lawsuits. Are the big bad corporations with all their big bad money and big bad mind-altering advertising really so powerful that we as individuals cannot think for ourselves anymore? Are we really so easily swayed by the simplest of pleasant images that we'll jump at the chance to share in some of that glorious, spring-scented, new and improved, because-you-deserve-it goodness, without a thought about what's best for us anymore?
You tell me. Every waking moment of our lives, we swim in an ocean of advertising, all of it telling us the same thing: Consume. Consume. And then consume some more.
In 2003, the auto industry spent $18.2 billion telling us we needed a new car, more cars, bigger cars. Over the last twenty-five years, the number of household vehicles in the United States has doubled. The rate of increase in the number of cars, vans and SUVs for personal travel has been six times the rate of population increase. In fact, according to the Department of Transportation, there are now, for the first time in history, more cars than drivers in America. That's ridiculous!
Did we suddenly need so many more vehicles? Or were we sold the idea?
We drive everywhere now. Almost nine-tenths of our daily travel takes place in a personal vehicle. Walking, actually using the legs and feet God gave us, accounts for appallingly little of our day-to-day getting around. Even on trips of under one mile, according to the Department of Transportation, we walked only 24 percent of the time in 2001 (and rode a bike under 2 percent). Walking declined by almost half in the two decades between 1980 and 2000. In Los Angeles, you can get arrested for walking. The cops figure if you're not in a car you can't be up to any good. If you're not in a car, you're a vagrant. Same goes for the suburbs, where so many of us now live.
And what do you put inside that SUV, minivan or pickup truck you're driving everywhere, other than your kids? Well, lots of stuff, that's what. In 2002, the retail industry in this country spent $13.5 billion telling us what to buy, and we must have been listening, because in 2003 we spent nearly $8 trillion on all kinds of crap. That's right, trillion. How insane is that? We are the biggest consuming culture on the planet. We buy almost twice as much crap as our nearest competitor, Japan. We spend more on ourselves than the entire gross national product of any nation in the world.
And all that shopping—whew, has it made us hungry. Every year, the food industry spends around $33 billion convincing us that we're famished. So we all climb back into our giant vehicle filled with all our stuff from Wal-Mart, and we cruise to the nearest fast-food joint. If not McDonald's or Burger King or Taco Bell, then a "fast casual" restaurant like Outback Steakhouse or TGI Friday's or the Olive Garden, where they serve us portions larger than our smallest kid, with the calories to match.
What does all that consumption do for us? Does it make us happy? You tell me. If we were all so happy, would we be on so many drugs? Antidepressant use in the U.S. nearly tripled in the past decade. We've got drugs in America we can take for anything: if we're feeling too bad, too good, too skinny, too fat, too sleepy, too wide awake, too unmanly. We've got drugs to counteract the disastrous health effects of all our overconsumption—diet drugs, heart drugs, liver drugs, drugs to make our hair grow back and our willies stiff. In 2003, we Americans spent $227 billion on medications. That's a whole lot of drugs!
This is the power of advertising at work, of billions of hooks that've been cast into our heads in the last thirty years, billions of messages telling us what we want, what we need and what we should do to feel happy. We all buy into it to some degree, because none of us is as young as we'd like to be, or as thin, or as strong.
Yet none of the stuff we consume—no matter how much bigger our SUV is than our neighbor's, no matter how many Whoppers we wolf down, no matter how many DVDs we own or how much Zoloft we take—makes us feel full, or satisfied or happy.
So we consume some more.
And the line between personal responsibility and corporate responsibility gets finer and more blurred. Yes, you're still responsible for your own life, your own health, your own happiness. But your desires, the things you want, the things you think you need—that's all manipulated by corporate advertising and marketing that now whisper and shout and wink at you from every corner of your life—at home, at work, at school, at play.
Consume. Consume. Still not happy? Then you obviously haven't consumed enough.
Like this book, the epidemic of over consumption that's plaguing the nation begins with the things we put in our mouths. Since the 1960s, everyone has known that smoking kills, but it's only been in the last few years that we've become hip to a new killer, one that now rivals smoking as the leading cause of preventable deaths in America and, if current trends continue, will soon be the leading cause: overeating.
Americans are eating themselves to death.