Puff Piece


Reading a book by John Safran is a singular experience. He has a distinctive voice and an individual approach, always immersing himself in his subject matter. He must be very charming in real life, because he seems to make friends with people on all sides of whatever controversy he's currently exploring. In Puff Piece, he takes on Big Tobacco -- specifically, Philip Morris, vaping and e-cigarettes. Safran dances back and forth in the grey areas of hypocrisy, ambiguity and self-interest, including his own. He's not afraid to tease out his own conflicted viewpoints -- everything is complicated!

Philip Morris haven't surfed out the global opposition to cigarette smoking without being slippery customers; Safran is especially intrigued by the way they've co-opted language to their own ends. They have invented a device they call the 'IQOS' -- sometimes they are at pains to distinguish this from a vaping device, but at other times, they are happy to conflate the two. The nicotine delivery device that is used with the IQOS is called a 'Heat Stick' -- definitely NOT a cigarette, they assure us, because it's 'heated' rather than 'burned.' And yet it looks like a cigarette and serves the same purpose as a cigarette ie getting nicotine into your body. Ah, doesn't it produce smoke, just like a cigarette? No, no, that's not smoke, it's 'vapour.' And so it goes. It really does make your head spin.

John Safran draws some interesting parallels between Philip Morris redefining a cigarette as a 'Heat Stick' and lethal tar as 'Nicotine Free Dry Particulate Matter' when in a different context he finds Jewish people being redefined as 'white people' and thereby disqualified from commenting on matters of racial discrimination -- an ironic decision for someone whose parents survived the Holocaust. It's not a shock that Safran is a little sensitive on these subjects.

I was dismayed, but not really surprised, to discover the extent of Philip Morris's duplicity. Corporations really will stop at nothing in the pursuit of profit. At least it makes a great topic for a book, and Safran is always entertaining company on the journey.


  1. I read this some months ago. It’s fascinating stuff. I wasn’t surprised either.

    And yes, he must be charming, because I’ve read his other books and found that even those he has sent up mercilessly seem to like him!

  2. I imagine he would be wonderful fun to hang out with in real life -- he certainly is on the page!