The moral outrage over the renaming of the Landmark Theater as the Altria Theater was predictable and for the most part, unwarranted.
Altria, the billion-dollar tobacco and booze conglomerate, is giving $10 million toward the renovation of the Landmark. In return it receives a 20-year naming rights deal. Altria has donated its cigarette shekels to many, including local arts programs and the Richmond Public Schools. It's also a major sponsor of the Richmond Folk and Jazz festivals.
Times-Dispatch columnist Michael Paul Williams, who generally is spot-on in his observations regarding perceived slights within the Cap City, summed up the anti-Altria argument and his own moral outrage last Tuesday.
"It's easy to sound hypocritical when it comes to Altria," he wrote. "How do you embrace its good works while decrying the toll of its products on public health? I, for one, don't want to feel like a tobacco pitchman while attending a performance at 6 N. Laurel St. Because let's face it, naming rights are little more than a form of advertising. … Altria's philanthropy cannot erase more than 400,000 tobacco-related deaths annually. Nor can it expunge a history of deceptive advertising that masked the dangers of smoking. It's a legacy that bears consideration before the city puts its name up in lights."
Mr. William's argument is based on having to witness his father struggle with lung cancer and the undeniably adverse health effects that tobacco has on people. He goes on to imply that Altria's beneficence is all an effort to gloss over the death and destruction that its products rain down upon the public.
And to that I say, no shit. My advice? Embrace it.
A family member's death and any of the 400,000 deaths we see each year because of tobacco use are heartbreaking, and I can certainly see how it would blur someone's judgment. But until Puppy Dog and Ice Cream Inc. decides to start bankrolling projects and giving out hundred-dollar handshakes like the smooth operators do at Big Tobacco, does this city, or any other entity, really have a choice not to accept its money?
Everyone needs a handout, and it's unfortunate that the people who need it the most are generally the ones who smoke cigarettes and won't see a dime of Altria's "charity."
Altria has proven to be more than willing to take nickels from the most destitute for a pack of Parliaments, which is somewhat deplorable. But at least it's showing some concern and civic responsibility by giving, albeit a small portion, back to the city. Who gives a flying cigarette butt what its intentions are? Print the playbills on tobacco leaves, for all I care.
Next Altria can spend some of its billions on a new field for the Flying Squirrels, christened the "Cigarettes Are Cool Stadium." Stick a pipe in Nutzy's mouth and call it a day. Or resurrect the failed downtown mall as 6th Street Marlboro Marketplace, with Food Court beckoning, "Welcome to Flavor Country!" The failed Chesterfield athletics mega-plex becomes CancerQuest. Downtown potholes eradicated thanks to the new Black Lung Blacktop.
None of the benefits to Altria changes the fact that it's comped money, money that was nowhere to be found before.
So stand up and hurl epithets at the sky for things that are unfair and for things that cause harm — that's OK to do — but in this case, there isn't much else you can do. Much like the crooks masquerading as even-handed banking institutions on Wall Street, Big Tobacco is an industry that's simply too big to fail.
And if you can't beat 'em, I say at least take their money.
P.S. This is not an endorsement of smoking. I smoke. It's beyond gross. I hate it. Don't ever start.
The New Hotness
I've been told by a certain evil editor that in lieu of focusing on things that I actually care about, I should keep you up to date on Richmond nightlife from time to time. And lucky for you, there's a new awesome drink made by a bartender at one of the hottest nightlife spots in town that will leave you asking if there ever was a time that existed before this drink/place/person's creation when something was so incredibly mind-blowing, avant-garde and revolutionary in the world of nightlife. I highly recommend you check out the spot and the person and the drink, as nothing of this magnitude will ever come along again.
"We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive." — Albert Einstein, probably in reference to this hot new Richmond drink, place or person.
Have a question for Richmond bartender Jack Lauterback? Email email@example.com. Lauterback also serves as co-host of 103.7-FM's "River Mornings with Melissa and Jack," weekdays from 6-9 a.m. On Twitter @jackgoesforth.