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Can John Oliver Make “Jeff, The Diseased Lung In A Cowboy Hat” Big Tobacco’s New Mascot?

The #JeffWeCan campaign mixes iconic mascot imagery with realistic health complications

image via youtube screen capture // last week tonight with john oliver: Tobacco (HBO)

That the tobacco industry spent decades cajoling, manipulating, and downright lying to the American public regarding the dangers of smoking is beyond question. Fortunately, thanks to ongoing efforts by both lawmakers and activist groups, the health risks posed by smoking are now common knowledge in the United States, and as a result, domestic tobacco use has dropped significantly. No, it’s not a problem solved, but given the degree to which tobacco use was once considered an indisputable facet of American life, it’s truly impressive progress.


Since smoking has declined in popularity in the States, companies like Philip Morris International, makers of the iconic Marlboro cigarette, have increasingly looked to compensate by cementing their hold on overseas markets. Focusing internationally has afforded tobacco manufacturers an entirely new set of tools by which they can assert their will on other countries seeking to curtail tobacco use. As John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, pointed out in a recent episode, Big Tobacco has become expert at using things like obscure trade agreements and the threat of astronomically expensive litigation against poorer countries in order to get their way.

The problem then, as Oliver sees it, is a matter of branding. Big tobacco wants to use carefully market-tested, board-approved designs on their products, while many countries simply want space on the boxes in order educate citizens about the dangers of smoking. It seems like an issue with no middle ground, but Oliver has a solution that’s equal parts hip mascot and public service: “Jeff, The Diseased Lung In A Cowboy Hat.”

“He’s already out there. You just need to claim him. Our lawyers, unlike yours, will not sue!”

By “already out there,” John is referring to the fact that his show has already seeded the ground with Jeff paraphernalia.

Tee-shirts in Togo – image via youtube screen capture // last week tonight with john oliver: Tobacco (HBO)

Bus stop ads in Uruguay – image via youtube screen capture // last week tonight with john oliver: Tobacco (HBO)

But lest you be content to sit back and let Last Week Tonight have all the fun, Oliver wants everyone to get in on the action. He finished the segment by urging viewers to tweet their support for Jeff, The Diseased Lung In A Cowboy Hat using the hashtag #JeffWeCan.

As Consumerist points out, representatives from Philip Morris have noticed the newfound scrutiny, and have responded by issuing a relatively unspecific “Hey, we get comedy!” rebuttal, claiming:

“While we recognize the tobacco industry is an easy target for comedians, we take seriously the responsibility that comes with selling a product that is an adult choice and is harmful to health.”

Meanwhile, the Jeff juggernaut keeps rolling ahead. Since the episode aired last week, #JeffWeCan has been tweeted a whopping fifty four thousand times, with little sign of slowing down.

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