NOTIONS: Collateral killing: It's good for business!

February 28, 2005

"But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," faltered Scrooge ...

"Business!" cried the Ghost ..."Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business." Charles Dickens, "A Christmas Carol"

Sunday night, about 10, I was watching the movie "Collateral" in the basement. I was trying, sans success, to get my mind off work and my wife Pam's bout with cancer for a few hours. Pam was one floor up, watching a Robert B. Parker mystery on TV.

If you've not seen "Collateral," it's about a hired gun named Vincent (Tom Cruise). He commandeers a taxi in Los Angeles one night and forces its driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), to chauffeur him from hit to hit.

I had just viewed a segment of the film in which Vincent explains that he's merely making a living by killing.

"I am a cool guy with a job I contracted to do," he says.

Then he kills someone else, with Max watching, and Max tells Vincent to find another cab.

"Leave me alone," says Max, "I'm collateral, anyway."

Just then, I heard a loud crash. I raced upstairs to find Pam on the floor, her aluminum crutch lying beside her. She said she'd gotten up from the couch, felt lightheaded and fallen.

She was breathing rapidly, her pulse racing and her hands trembling. I helped her up, calmed her down and got her something to eat and drink. By Monday morning, she seemed OK-except for the lingering pain from cancer surgery on her hip and the persistent, body-rattling cough triggered by multiple lung tumors.

A lifelong non-smoker who spent years as a journalist covering sources in smokefilled rooms, Pam is now "collateral" to the Vincent-like justification for permitting deadly tobacco in restaurants, bars and other public places: "It's good for business."

"Smoking and drinking are habits that go together in this business," David Andrichik, owner of the Chatterbox tavern, told The Indianapolis Star. "He opposes the ban because it could hurt businesses," the Star said.

"We'll lose business, definitely," Owen 'O.B.' Brant, owner of Bourbon Street Distillery, told IBJ. "They say you won't, but I don't believe that one bit."

"It will hurt you forever," restaurateur Don Hall told IBJ, "When you thumb your nose at 20 to 25 percent of the market and say, 'We don't want you the way you are,' you can't explain that away to me."

Well, Don, I want Pam the way she was. I want her rich alto voice humming in my ear instead of the wheezy, cough-choked sentences she utters now. I want to run my fingers through her long, soft locks instead of the wiry strands that grew back after chemotherapy. I want to walk hand in hand around the canal by our home instead of dreading each crutch-assisted step up the stairs. I want to hear her quiet, soft breath from the pillow beside me, instead of the hacking, coughing, throat-clearing struggle that's now our every evening.

But one thing's for sure, Don. By sucking up to the 20 to 25 percent who suck on cancer sticks, and thumbing your noses at the rest of us, you and your fellow restaurateurs and bar owners have forever hurt a whole lot of Pams and the people who love them-and you can't explain that away to me, either.

But you're right, Don, smoke and secondhand smoke are, indeed, good for business. During 2004, when Pam went through radical neck surgery, multiple courses of chemotherapy and several newfangled cancer drugs, her medical bills totaled $186,945.

That was good business for drug companies, pharmacies, hospitals, surgeons, nurses, technicians, technologists, oncologists, radiologists, otolaryngologists, pathologists and lots of other "ologists."

What's more, when Pam's doctors suggested we seek treatment from a leading national cancer center, we ran up more than $20,000 in travel expenses, too.

That was good business for airlines, hotels, rental car companies, groceries, parking garages, long-distance phone services and, yes, smoke-free restaurants in Houston.

Over the next few weeks, the Indianapolis City-County Council will consider a ban on smoking in places where people gather to live their lives, not inhale their deaths.

Opponents will, no doubt, include restaurateurs and bar owners who proverbially proclaim that such bans are bad for business.

If the almighty buck is the only criterion, let's legalize methamphetamines, too. They kill far fewer people than tobacco-triggered heart disease and cancer. Folks in economically depressed areas need the jobs and revenue. And our pharmacies benefit from the sale of raw, over-the-counter materials.

While we're at it, let's repeal murder laws, too. After all, for Vincent and his death-for-dollars ilk, free rein would be great for business.

As for me and my family? Aw, who cares? When you've got a killing to make, we're collateral, anyway.

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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