The Last Cigarette

The Last Cigarette is a documentary featuring footage of the 1994 congressional hearings on tobacco and health, in which the CEOs of major cigarette makers and industry representatives defend their dangerous and addictive product. These excerpts of the hearings are interspersed with amusing tobacco-related clips from TV, movies, and commercials that show the startling tactics used by tobacco companies to entice the public to smoke. Many young people born after 2000 in the USA have no idea how widespread smoking was in the past, nor that it killed nearly a half million Americans yearly. Now smoking is even forbidden in many public places, because second-hand smoke also kills non-smokers. Did you know that they used to have TV commercials for cigarettes? Sometimes with children as advertisers? (I had no idea). I found it entertaining to see all the old ads for cigarettes, and movies clips with smoking, as it shows some cultural background of that time. The old cigarette ads show how tobacco companies used advertising to persuade people to smoke their brands of cigarettes, and now in retrospect many of the ads are hilarious. There are some good laughs over how hokey the advertising and antiquated attitudes used to be about smoking. Ads for one brand claim: “Coughs due to smoking disappear! Parched throat clears up! That stale, smoked-out feeling vanishes!” Such miracle claims were once used to promote even more smoking, with the promise that “when you change to Philip Morris you’ll feel better.” The real miracle is that the glamor of the cigarette habit has been so successfully manufactured for so long. The film’s howlers reveal the absurd extremes of pitchmanship that have shaped smoking’s public image. Julie London sings “You get a lot to like from a Marlboro” as if it were the sexiest song ever written, and as if cigarettes were definitely beside the point. These film-clips and ads show the seductive appeal of tobacco. This film is about the mystique of smoking in America. In a scene from “Black Robe,” missionaries try to tell Indians that they won’t need tobacco (or women) in paradise, but the Indians laugh at that idea. Behind the funny naivete seen in some of the film clips, there is an awareness of nicotine’s real hold in the smoker. The editing in this movie is great. The vintage smoking ads and the scenes of smoking in films of yesteryear are entertaining. There are also sobering interviews with people who suffer from tobacco use. There are amusing clips from ultra-square educational films with the look of the early 1950’s. In this movie, anything goes: see a frog smoke, and two human lovebirds puff from a single heart-shaped holder. An instructor demonstrates what one drop of pure nicotine can do to a laboratory rodent, then helpfully points out, “Now fortunately, man is many times larger than a mouse.” Having seen this (and it’s not a pretty sight), one of his listeners shakes his head and says: “No kidding, doc, you really have convinced me.”

But interspersed with the film-clips of people smoking in ads and movies, this movie also shows a major turning point in the campaign against tobacco. At the congressional hearings in 1994 as shown on C-SPAN, the CEOs of the major cigarette companies are seen misleading the public about the dangers of tobacco. It is interesting to see how they blatantly lie, feign ignorance, and shamelessly defend their product. Quietly outrageous excerpts from these hearings show the CEOs claiming not to care whether their children or grandchildren smoke, touting the supposedly grown-up appeal of the cartoon Joe Camel, and excelling in carefully bland double-talk. Asked whether smoking is addictive, the research director of Philip Morris replies, “It is a very complicated question, which requires an extremely complicated answer.” This film does a good job in illustrating the cover-ups of the tobacco industry, and the actions of government to try to control tobacco. The film is still very relevant, and an especially good historical document to show how we got to this point of the current anti-smoking sentiment that exists today. Cigarette smoking remains a complex and important issue in current society. There are still 1.1 billion smokers in the world today, and if current trends continue, that number is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by the year 2025. Kids are still picking up smoking at the alarming rate of 3,000 a day in the U.S., and 80,000 to 100,000 a day worldwide. Half of all long-term smokers will die a tobacco-related death. Documentary 1999 NR 82 minutes.

Also watch “Thanks for Smoking.”

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