Michael C. Keith
–– Isabelle Holland
Nearly fifty years after the Surgeon General declared smoking a health hazard, the Globe Tobacco Company continued to thrive. The fact that the government’s pronouncement had barely impacted the company’s bottom line gave its longtime CEO, Joshua Winston, faith that Americans would never stop lighting up, despite years of dire reports on the effects of tar and nicotine.
“It’s a good, solid business we’re in,” proclaimed Winston on more than one occasion at the annual GTC employee summer barbecue. “And there’s nothing wrong with what we do. We provide our customers with something they desire. We fulfill a need, and that’s what a good product is supposed to do.”
At that point in his speech, Winston would invariably enumerate the benefits of cigarettes.
“They’re calorie free, and they actually curb the appetite. They help the user relax. They give our customers something to look forward to. Cigarettes make the user look cool, especially our menthols,” said Winston, with a smug chuckle.
At the end of his soliloquy, everyone present would light up in a show of solidarity, and Winston would nod in approbation.
GTC senior product inspector Cary Newton would pretend to smoke, but as soon as he could he would douse his cigarette and pop a mint to rid him of the foul taste. He had once been a smoker, indeed a fairly heavy one, but a prolonged cough had convinced him that the habit was taking its toll. His lungs had soon cleared of the tobacco residue and in the process made him even more keenly aware of the deleterious effects of smoking.
Since joining GTC, Newton had grappled with the idea that he worked for a company perceived as a public health risk by most of the population. It weighed on him that he drew his paycheck from such an enterprise, but the money was good and other job opportunities were few during the decade he’d spent at the company. He had prospected for a position online, but nothing viable had appeared. So he reluctantly remained in the employ of GTC as his remorse and guilt for doing so mounted.
On a number of occasions he had to defend what he did for a living with what few friends he had. In their eyes he was complicit in the manufacture of a deadly product, and he found it hard to disagree, although he tried.
“Look, no one forces people to buy cigarettes. They do it of their own free will. It’s like blaming car makers for those who die in accidents.”
“Not the same thing, Cary. C’mon. Cigarettes are inherently dangerous,” argued Felix Dubois.
This kind of debate continued between Cary and his cohort until the wide gulf it created permanently separated them. Eventually, Cary came to believe that his job had destroyed his social life. Except for his coworkers at the GTC plant, he had little contact with people. Even his relatives had become remote, or so he felt. Secretly, Cary knew that it had more to do with his own remoteness than theirs. They had expressed their negative views about his job, but they had not done so as condemningly as had his friends. Still, Cary felt diminished by their attitude over what he did for a living.
“Can’t you do something else?” his Aunt had inquired. “Something that doesn’t hurt people? You’re a smart young man. It must be difficult working for a company that turns people into addicts and then makes them sick and even kills them.”
“I would, but I can’t find a job that pays what they do. And I’ve got bills to pay. Besides, I’m just a low level employee. I didn’t invent cigarettes. The company will keep doing what it does even if I leave,” responded Cary defensively.
“Still, Cary, it really is blood money.”
The comment had been the last straw for Cary, and for nearly two years he had avoided contact with members of his disapproving family. Had his parents still been alive, he would have had their support, but in their absence he felt very alone.
Blood money, he thought, feeling both anger and despair.
* * *
As winter gave way to spring, Cary noticed that he’d developed a cough much like the one that had forced him to stop smoking a half dozen years earlier. It wasn’t long before he was fearing that he’d finally developed cancer from his years of smoking––that it had finally asserted itself as he feared it would. He Googled the symptoms and found that a persistent cough could be one indicator of the dreaded disease. The website also made it amply clear that a bothersome cough could also indicate many less lethal afflictions, such as the common cold. Despite this, Cary soon convinced himself that he suffered the Big C.
He resisted seeing his doctor because of what he believed would be the grim outcome of such a visit. However, as weeks went on and his coughing continued, he decided to face the bad news. What brought him around was a plan he embraced with great enthusiasm. He would use his diagnosis to advance the cause against tobacco consumption. This would involve informing GTC that he had lung cancer from smoking its product and that he was going public with that news. If he were fired, even better, he thought. Then he would be a double victim of the harmful industry. In that case, he would then stand at the entrance to the facility with a placard outlining his plight.
Dr. Ramsey, Cary’s longtime primary care physician, seemed fairly matter-of-fact about his patient’s symptoms, but he did order x-rays to make certain nothing serious was wrong. Cary did not reveal his conviction that he had lung cancer. He was given a prescription for an expectorant and cough syrup and told that his x-ray results would likely be back in a couple days. He’d be called when they arrived.
“If there’s anything that needs further attention, we’ll get you back here,” said the doctor, adding, “But I doubt there will be.”
* * *
While Cary awaited what he was certain would be bad news, he continued to plot his protest against GTC. Doing so helped ease his anxiety while providing him with some solace––something positive would come of a bad situation. A day after his doctor’s visit, he decided to contact his Aunt, his closest relative since the passing of his parents, and let her know what was going on. While she was upset by what he indicated was a certain cancer diagnosis, she commended him on his strategy intended to heighten the world’s awareness about the nefarious impact of his employer’s product.
“I’m proud of you for taking a stand against those horrible people. They know they’re killing folk, and all they care about is the money. It’s a despicable business. You’re living proof of what happens when you use what they make. They won’t like what you’re going to do at all, and that’s good. I’ll let your cousins know, honey. Maybe we’ll come and protest with you.”
“Thanks, Aunt Pat, but it’s better if I stand out there alone. It’ll make people more sympathetic to my cause . . . the lone voice of reason in the wilderness.”
Two days later, Cary got the call he expected but not the news he anticipated.
“Hello, Mr. Newton. This is Doctor Ramsey’s office calling with the results of your x-ray.”
“Oh, yes,” replied Cary, catching his breath. “I’ve been waiting to hear the bad news.”
“No, it’s good news. Your lungs appear quite normal, except for some congestion from your cold. I suspect the medicine has already cleared up much of it,” said the chirpy voice.
Cary was at a loss for words but managed to thank the caller. He breathed a sigh of relief and then thought about what to do with his plan to confront GTC. I’ll still do it, he thought. I don’t have to actually have lung cancer. I can say I suffered greatly from the fear that I did have cancer after all my years of smoking. May not be as effective, but I’ll still be making an important statement. This is just something I need to do, job or no job.
He retained his resolve to take action against the cigarette maker when he arrived at work the next day. As he was entering the building, he ran into his boss, Lance Corbett, the director of quality control. Cary was about to initiate his plan, when Corbett asked him into his office.
“How long have you been with GTC, Cary?” he asked, directing him to a chair in front of his desk.
Cary was thrown by the unexpected question. He was about to speak out against tobacco but instead found himself answering Corbett’s question.
“Almost ten years?” repeated Corbett, nodding approval. “Well, you’ve done a great job for GTC, so I’m happy to tell you that you’re going to be promoted to assistant director of quality control. Congratulations, Cary. Nice bump up in salary, too. Welcome to management.”
Cary was completely stunned by the news and suddenly very unsure about what to do next.
“Smoke?” said Corbett, offering Cary a GTC Menthol Supreme.
Cary hesitated, and then he accepted one. Corbett took a long, luxurious drag on his cigarette and exhaled slowly.
“Life is good, eh, Cary?”
After a moment’s reflection, Cary drew deeply on his own cigarette.
“Yeah,” he replied, making a large O with the smoke that rushed past his lips. “Yeah, life is good.”
Michael C. Keith writes stories and teaches college. www.michaelckeith.com