The European Parliament locks in the date. On Wednesday 20 May, 2020, Brit, Dane, Pole, Cypriot and Finn will wake up to a land where the menthol cigarette is forbidden. It’s over. They’re dodos. Not just the extinction of an entire category of smokes, but the ones that most often dangle from the lips of the young.
The world’s largest cigarette company, Philip Morris International, most famous for the Marlboro brand, agrees to stop selling menthol cigarettes. Then they add that, by the way, they have a new product. It’s not a menthol cigarette, they assure everyone. It’s a menthol HeatStick. But a HeatStick is just tobacco rolled in paper with a filter at one end. You know, like a cigarette.
HeatSticks come in packs of twenty, the box emblazoned with the warning ‘Smoking is a Major Cause of Stroke’ and a nauseating photo of a damaged brain. Like a cigarette pack.
Slotting it into the IQOS, you puff on one of these HeatSticks like you’d puff on a cigarette, drawing nicotine and tobacco into your lungs. After you’re finished, you flick the HeatStick into the bin or onto the ground. Like you’d flick a cigarette butt into the bin or onto the ground.
So why isn’t this a cigarette? Because Philip Morris International says it’s not.
Surely it won’t be that easy? Wise lawmakers have spent years in committees, drafting legislation, determined to ban menthol cigarettes. Philip Morris agrees to abide by the new law, but then announces they have a new menthol ciga . . . err . . . HeatStick!
HeatStick. A brand-new word. A word that wasn’t here last year. I thought new words squeezed into the world from the ground up, grassroots and organic. That’s from growing up with hip-hop blasting from a boom box bought with my bar-mitzvah money. Def, b- boy, 24/7, cold lampin’, gas face, scratching the wheels of steel and right up to your face and diss you. Where did these peculiar and delicious words come from, before they ended up in the mouths of rappers? Nobodies-in-particular, patients zero slouching on a couch some-where in America, impossible to track down now, shooting the breeze. Toying with language while not thinking about it. Crunching down words already in circulation. Brewing in-jokes. Verbing nouns and nouning verbs. These words either catch fire or they don’t. The ones that do – their fumes float from a couch, up the street and spread all over town. Next thing you know, CNN’s business corre-spondent is telling you the head of the Federal Reserve just dissed the airline industry and shares in Delta Air will plunge fo’ shizzle.
‘HeatStick’ wasn’t birthed this way. This word is not grassroots or organic, it’s top-down and calculated. It’s been created and deployed to change the meaning of what a cigarette is and isn’t. Which, in turn, can change facts in the flesh-and-blood world. Soon, if things go Philip Morris’s way, a Spaniard, otherwise prohibited from doing so, will be able to smoke a menthol cigarette that isn’t one. A Fleming can go on phlegming.
Over the coming months I’ll learn that this is not just a one-off tactic to try to slip by the European ban – warping language is Philip Morris’s number-one wangle.
Words hold power. A phrase so overused it has itself lost much of its power. Still, it’s no less true. I’ve been clobbered with this concept since Sunday School: according to kabbalah, the mystical branch of Judaism, God created the universe by breathing words. And, the Jewish mystics teach, we too can build and bend realities, like God has. Not with piping, mud and scaffolding, but with words.
Philip Morris, the Goliath of a dying industry, will either collapse and turn to dust or live to battle on. It all pivots on corporate kabbalah, breathing words into the world, hoping they catch alight and reshape reality.
Puff Piece by John Safran is available in store and online now.