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.”