Cigarettes are BAD.
Somewhere between 1980 and 1990 we collectively understood this to be true.
But in the decades before 1950, we collectively understood them to be GOOD, healthy even. Physicians in the 1930’s recommended smoking as a treatment for everything from throat irritation to “healthy” weight loss via appetite suppression. “Cigarettes are downright GOOD for you!” Examples of such endorsement can be easily retrieved with a simple google search.
For the three decades in between; 1950, 1960, and 1970, we understood cigarettes to be NOT THAT BAD. Sure, they might give you cancer but that takes years and everyone has that one family member who smoked a pack a day till they died of old age in their 90’s, right?
GOOD, NOT THAT BAD, ok… BAD. It seems we follow this cycle of collective understanding for nearly any harmful consumer product that trades brief, momentary pleasure in exchange for money. Companies both large and small understand this cycle and use it to take full advantage of the consumer. You don’t grow up to be a Phillip Morris or a General Mills without this understanding. In fact, you can make a pretty good guess at how large a company is just based on where they are on the GOOD, NOT THAT BAD, or BAD spectrum.
GOOD is where you build your customer base. In the old days, you paid some doctors to extol the health benefits of your product. “Wine is GOOD for you because… antioxidants!” Then you paid some actors even more money to make it look cool. Find me a sitcom where the beautiful, witty, just over 40 actress doesn’t end up with a glass of Pinot in her hand at some point. I can’t think of even one. Buying a couple of “influencers” is pretty much all you need to get the money faucet running, at least to a trickle.
Btw “influencers” used to have medical degrees or high profile acting jobs, now anyone with an attractive Instagram will do. They’ll sell you a waist trainer to make up for all those plant-based cookies they also sold you. Then maybe a cleanse or some Kombucha. Tactics evolve. You won’t find the phrase “part of a balanced breakfast” on a box of Lucky Charms anymore, but you will find the terms “whole grains” and “gluten free”.
NOT THAT BAD is the next phase. It’s where your product has been around long enough to make some money but also kill a few people. Now other influencers with medical degrees and “gasp” integrity, are letting people know. Don’t worry though, hardly anyone listens to those people. Their Instagram’s are gag-worthy if they even have one.
NOT THAT BAD is where the real money is made. Here you have an established marketing program to recruit new customers while continuing to feed your established customers even as the old ones die off. The faucet of money is now turned to the full “on” position with big money flooding out.
The only thing with the potential to interrupt the steady stream of profits pouring from said faucet would be the growing number of afore mentioned ethical, knowledgeable people with ugly Instagram’s (if they even have one) and facts proving your product to be more harmful than you let on. Not to fear, we can delay them with an army of ethically challenged people armed with alternative facts and much more attractive Insta’s. We pay for those alternative facts and Insta’s with the steady stream of money we’re making off of our poor, sickened customers.
Employing this strategy, we can remain in the NOT THAT BAD phase of the cycle for a very long time. Tobacco pulled it off for over three decades. At this point I would remind you even though we’ve collectively reached the point of knowing big tobacco is BAD, their profit margins are still pretty darn GOOD.
NOT THAT BAD is where we currently are with alcohol, “mommy wine culture” being noticeably troublesome.
NOT THAT BAD is where we currently are with processed foods.
NOT THAT BAD is where we currently are with sugar.
All of the above have affected my family at some point and of course the last one, me personally.
Of all the sugar demons who’ve danced in my head, each of whom I can identify by name and voice; BOREDOME, LONELINESS, YOU’RE NOT GOOD ENOUGH, YOU’RE STRESSED… IT’S NOT THAT BAD is the one I hate most.
My struggle with sugar addiction taught me to recognize poison even when it’s accepted and indeed encouraged collectively as a culture. And how depressingly easy it is for some guy sitting in a board room somewhere to convince us to repeat the lie to ourselves over and over. “It’s NOT THAT BAD for you!” All in the service of keeping the money faucet running 24/7 at an incredible cost to our collective health.
Oh, and now that guy in the board room can even buy a few scientists to manipulate data, further perpetuating the idea that his product is NOT THAT BAD. Who would’ve guessed that in the 21st century information would be more destructive than the nuclear bomb we dropped on Hiroshima? Am I starting to sound a bit melodramatic? Let’s find out.
Sugar and processed foods kill 80,000 people a year in the US through Type 2 diabetes alone but it’s NOT THAT BAD so we allow the average child to consume 3 pounds of the stuff weekly.
Last I checked, alcohol is still the most socially acceptable NOT THAT BAD drug. Related deaths are estimated at 95,000 per year.
Taken together, this adds up to 175,000 deaths per year. At our highest estimate, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 150,000. Keep in mind Hiroshima doesn’t occur yearly. This is all without taking into account the 665,000 deaths every year from heart disease which both sugar and alcohol play a role in. There are more diseases we can reference back to these two poisons, but you get the idea. Things that are NOT THAT BAD actually tend to kill us in droves.
Humans are notoriously bad at calculating risk. We evolved to react to immediate dangers; the pouncing tiger, or the brewing storm on the horizon.
A broken metabolism, a failing liver, these are far off threats that typically don’t get our attention until it’s too late. NOT THAT BAD exploits this blind spot to gain a foothold in our vulnerable minds. Once there, it becomes entrenched by appealing to our bias for seeking out information confirming what we want to be true; “I read an article that says it’s totally fine if I eat Skittles to replenish the carbs I used in the gym.” Properly entrenched, it becomes nearly impossible to dislodge NOT THAT BAD thanks to our tendency to ignore any information that threatens our own ideology.
Big, dramatic events are what our brains are conditioned to respond to. Can you remember where you were on September 11th, 2001 when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center? Of course you can, 2,997 people died that day. What about yesterday, December 10th, 2020? More than 3,100 people died of COVID-19 yesterday, but it won’t leave an impression in your mind because there was no spectacle. This is precisely why we’re susceptible to suffering more than an atom bomb’s worth of death every year just so a few companies can improve their bottom line. In the war of information, NOT THAT BAD is a weapon of mass destruction.
It’s in our nature to self-soothe with nearly anything that tastes or feels good to us. Criminalizing it won’t help. Alcohol defeated prohibition as easily as drugs won the “war on drugs”. Banning substances is a direct path to making them more desirable. Sugar, alcohol, tobacco, and all the other vices have their place in our society and will continue to do so whether we like it or not.
I’m not making an argument to ban anything here, I just hope to live long enough to see the end of NOT THAT BAD.