Did Philip Morris get revenge on me?
I'm proud and grateful Puff Piece has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards. I'll use this moment to answer a question often asked.
Philip Morris are the Marlboro men, the biggest tobacco company on earth. Puff Piece, a fun exposé, screwed with their efforts to launch a new product, the iQOS, in Australia. This leads people to ask, did Philip Morris try to exact revenge? And, if so, did they succeed?
Preamble: This isn’t really part of the story but, soon enough, you’ll understand why I telling you it. It’s 2021 and I keep getting these ads on YouTube, fronted by a chunky man. His pitch: When you have legs like tree trucks you need underpants that don’t chafe your thighs. I think to myself, is everyone getting this ad? Or does the algorithm know I’ve put on weight, through too many Uber Eats while in lockdown typing up my book? A few months later, after hitting the gym and cutting out bread, I’ve trimmed my waistline. And one night YouTube hits me with an ad from the same underpants company but now the pitch is the opposite of what it had been. A skinny guy is telling me: Don’t you hate it when your underpants ride down, not fitting snuggly enough? So the algorithm knows.
Anyway, let’s get on with the story proper. My book has come out and I’m keeping up the health kick. One afternoon I’m jogging up a step hill and feel pain in my lower back. I decide the jogging is jarring my spine and pinching a nerve. Something for a physio or chiropractor to look into. The next time I’m out jogging I avoid the hill. I assume the nerves in my back are connected to my ribs because now I feel pain there too. I need to stop and give myself a minute to recover. I really should see a chiropractor, I think to myself.
It’s two months later and I’ve incrementally, almost subconsciously, adapted my life around the fact I can’t walk that far without sitting down and needing to recover. I can drive most places, and if I’m not in my car, book an Uber, so I don’t need to think about the situation too much.
One midnight, Saturday tipping into Sunday, I’m eating felafel with my mate Vinny at a kebab shop attached to a carwash. I feel too embarrassed to call an Uber for the one measly kilometre between the kebab shop and my home. So I wave goodbye to Vinny and start walking, having to recover at tram stop benches along the way. I’m nearly home. Leaning against the wall of the apartment block next to mine, I know I can make the final twenty metres. I regain my composure.
That Monday I am finally sitting in front of a doctor. The medical practice is just around the corner from home but I needed to drive. He’s a new doctor, in that he’s new to me. I’m not sure what happened to the doctor I usually see here, on the rare occasion I do. That doctor had caught me on the ABC show Q&A and, impressed to death, recalled the same story each time. A visiting Israeli dignitary had fallen ill and was sent to him because, like the dignitary, he spoke Russian and Hebrew. He was able to identify the ailment and provide the panacea, so the dignitary was fit to appear on Q&A that night to defend Israel.
I eye the framed medical degree of this new doctor, noting his surname, and we begin what’s called ‘bagelling’. This is when two Jews meet for the first time and signal to the other that they too are a Member of The Tribe.
“Crazy weekend, another bar-mitzvah, son’s friend,” he semaphores.
I tell the doctor why I’m here, furnishing him with the stories of my pain. I expound my theory that it’s some sort of pinched nerve from jogging and I might well be wasting his time, when there are people with real problems waiting in reception. He looks at me, dumbfounded. “Why didn’t you call an ambulance?” he says, “when you had to sit down at the tram stop?”
He tells me I need to get to a cardiologist ASAP, types and prints a referral, and presses a prescription for five types of pills into my hand.
I stop by the pharmacist before I head home. That night, lying in bed, I open up YouTube on my phone. Guess what advertisement the algorithm serves up?
This must be serious. The algorithm knows.
The next morning I’m turning down a side street to the Cabrini Hospital carpark. My appointment with the cardiologist is in fifteen. My phone buzzes, flashing my dad’s name.
“Hi Pops,” I say.
“Are you going to Cabrini?”
What the hell.
“No,” I say.
“I was driving by and thought I saw you.”
“Well it wasn’t me.”
Why am I lying to my dad, like I’ve been spotted slinking into a Triple-X Adult Bookshop?
The plaque in the hospital reception reads: “Francesca Cabrini was born in northern Italy in 1850. Inspired by her deep faith in Jesus Christ, she was a woman of great compassion and courage. She saw her life as a mission to relieve suffering and serve those in need.”
After bagelling, I tell the cardiologist why I’m here. He stares at me oddly, like the doctor had yesterday. Why, for goodness sake, hadn’t I called for an ambulance all those times I needed to sit down to recover? He offers his professional opinion on what has been going on inside my body. For months I have be having little hearts attacks, brushing them off and getting on with day. He says he usually books an x-ray to see if a surgical procedure called an angiogram is necessary. But in this case, he suggests, let’s just skip to the angiogram. He books me in for the surgery.
By the end of the week the cardiologist has slid a set of stents into me, unblocking arteries near my heart. By the end of the following week, a second set.
So what had happened? How had I ended up in that horrible state? The cardiologist had asked me questions about my lifestyle. He came to this one: “Do you smoke?”
“Funny you should ask”, I replied.
I told him up until 2020 I hadn't smoked. But I had started working on a book on Philip Morris. And I always immerse myself in the adventure at hand, get over-involved, become the opposite of a fly on the wall. So I had spent over a year smoking cigarettes and huffing vapes.
The cardiologist again looked at me, dumbfounded. “Yes, that was most likely the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
A fortnight following the angiogram I’m jogging up the hill, pain free. So I’m fine. Thank you doctors and nurses and science! Very grateful. And thank you too, Francesca Cabrini.
So let’s return to the question that began this all. Did Philip Morris get revenge on me?
They sure did.
Puff Piece, shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, is available in paperback, ebook and audiobook (read by me), from lots of places including here.
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As one of my favorite authors, I must implore you to take care of your health John. Douglas Adam's writing dramatically declined after his death and I'm still feeling bereft.
Wow that is some heavy shit! Glad you are ok. Congratulations on the shortlist !