This past Sunday, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver found the host exercising his proven ability to rile those in power, this time on someone even more ridiculous than a Twitter-trolling Ecuadorian president who hangs out with clowns: the tobacco industry. Oliver spent the bulk of his show going after Philip Morris for its practice of taking expensive, convoluted legal action against entire nations—including the relatively tiny Uruguay and Togo—for daring to introduce packaging that might help its smoking citizens not kill themselves (or, at least, do so slightly slower). It’s a battle that, as the segment pointed out, Philip Morris has fought with zero success in larger nations like Australia, where its High Court deemed it “delusive” and “unreal and synthetic.” But as Oliver proved, delusion and synthetic ingredients are what the tobacco industry is built on.
Further making his point for him, now Philip Morris has issued a statement to the Los Angeles Times responding to Oliver, and dismissing his entire, thoroughly researched segment, because he also made some jokes. And as the old saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s an exaggeration of the truth that certainly has no basis in reality.”
“Last Week Tonight With John Oliver is a parody show, known for getting a laugh through exaggeration and presenting partial views in the name of humor,” said Philip Morris, which is known for presenting partial views in the name of protecting its profits. “The segment includes many mischaracterizations of our company, including our approach to marketing and regulation, which have been embellished in the spirit of comedic license.” (Philip Morris would also like to remind you that, contrary to Oliver’s skewed, satirical presentation, lungs don’t actually wear cowboy hats.)
Unfortunately, the statement doesn’t actually say which parts of its company’s approach to marketing and regulation Oliver embellished. However, it’s assumed Philip Morris is referring to the many hilarious comic exaggerations like: showing the company’s own, asinine “Don’t Be A Maybe” video; playing footage of its executives suggesting that low birth weight can be a relief to tired moms; citing statistics showing that stricter regulations have actually led to decreased smoking rates; discussing Philip Morris’ officially documented legal strategy of exploiting an obscure treaty between Hong Kong and Australia in order to sue an entire country; and, of course, directly quoting the resulting legal correspondence, high court rulings, and even the actual parliament members who had to sit through them. You know, all the sort of wacky things you’d expect from a purveyor of “parody.”
Philip Morris’ statement then goes on to decry its continued, baffling status as a punchline for comedians, when it’s over here trying very sincerely to be conscientious about methodically killing people. “While we recognize the tobacco industry is an easy target for comedians, we take seriously the responsibility that comes with selling a product that is an adult choice and is harmful to health,” it reads, in what is an actual instance of parody.
The statement then avers that Philip Morris aims to “support and comply with thousands of regulations worldwide”—or, the ones that it’s been legally required to follow and that it can’t combat with lengthy, costly lawsuits, anyway. It also suggests that hey, maybe it deserves a little commendation for possibly, kind of looking into products that could be a little less worse for you than the ones they’ve sold for more than 100 years.
“We’re investing billions into developing and scientifically assessing a portfolio of products that have the potential to be less harmful and that are satisfying so smokers will switch to them,” says the company who made those billions by manufacturing those more harmful products in the first place, in addition to creating the artificial craving for the “satisfaction” they provide. But now they’re looking into stuff that has the potential to be a little less deadly that you can still get addicted to.
But more than anything, Oliver’s words could prove toxic to the people—the people who work at Philip Morris. “Like any other company with a responsibility to its business partners, shareholders and employees, we ask only that laws protecting investments, including trademarks, be equally applied to us,” it says, asking you to please keep in mind all these poor merchants of death, whose profits might be slightly smaller if they’re forced to follow slightly stricter regulations than other companies, simply because their products happen to kill.
The statement concludes by offering up “a balanced view” by directing readers to the Philip Morris website, which is nearly as funny as anything in Oliver’s original segment.