John Oliver took on big tobacco on Sunday's Last Week Tonight, calling on his viewers to help "Jeff the Diseased Lung" trend on Twitter to make it the face of major tobacco products like Marlboro.
Oliver's idea is to get this character so widely retweeted and shared that it will rise to the top of Google Image searches for Marlboro.
Although tobacco is losing popularity in the US, it's still very profitable in the rest of the world. Part of that, Oliver explained, is due to tobacco companies' ability to fight public health laws in court. Philip Morris International has sued various countries — including Australia, Uruguay, and Togo — after they tried to restrict packaging on tobacco products.
"At this point, it's safe to say if you live in an apartment with at least two other people and you ask one of them to please smoke outside," Oliver joked, "you can look forward to a letter from a tobacco company very soon."
These lawsuits have serious repercussions: for smaller nations like Togo, the legal threats have created an expensive deterrent to basic public health measures.
Tobacco is still one of the leading causes of death in the US, even though the share of adults reporting current use of tobacco products plummeted from 42.4 percent in 1965 to 19 percent in 2011. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates tobacco kills 480,000 Americans each year — more than reported homicides, traffic accidents, and drug overdoses combined.
Further reading: The 3 deadliest drugs in America are all totally legal.