'Say Something Bunny' Will Speak to Those of Us Who Fall Prey to Rabbit Holes

While browsing around in a thrift store in Williamsburg several years ago, I came across a box full of old photos and postcards. As I rifled through, I realized they were of no one in particular, just random people. I bought several, feeling mildly uncomfortable as I brought photos of strangers to the cashier, but not enough to deter me from posting them on my bulletin board, as if I were displaying members of my own family.

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Photo of mid-century family on beach that I found in Williamsburg store

The photos I posted exuded a mid-century American nostalgia. One showed a group of family or friends spread out on beach blankets -- the women in one-pieces, the men in swim trunks. Another was of two older men in business attire in the sitting room of a house, next to a sliding porch door that led to a garden. I stared at these photos, wondering about the people in them, who were likely gone or very old, but here they were frozen of time. 

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Photo of two men, also found in Williamsburg thrift store

I also find myself fixated on photos of my own family from around the same era, many of which I acquired when my grandmother passed away in 2014. Some of my favorites from my grandma's collection: one of she and my grandfather sitting in a rocket-shaped car on an amusement park ride, another of my dad in the apartment we first lived in in Chicago, in the early 1980s, in front of a bare wall in a plaid shirt and big glasses.

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Photo of my dad from the early 1980s

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Photo of my grandparents, year unknown

I was reminded of those photos by the hit independent play I recently saw Say Something Bunny created by Alison S.M. Kobayashi and Christopher Allen and performed by Kobayashi. The play offers us a window into a Jewish family from the 1950s through today, through old recordings Kobayashi discovered and extensive historical research into them.

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Say Something Bunny play brings the audience in with a read-through format

The evening begins a bit like mystery theater, with audience members choosing our seats around a massive table that feels like we are in a a conference room or on the set of Dr. Strangelove. Kobayashi tells us to take out a script from a cubby underneath the table in front of us that says Say Something Bunny on the cover. She assigns us each a role, as if we are in a read-through, and proceeds to play for us two conversations on a wire recorder involving a family, the Newburges. In the first, the Newburges are spending dinner in 1952 with neighbors who are getting ready to move to the Philadelphia suburbs. In the second, we are with the Newburge family around Thanksgiving.

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Cornell student newspaper from early 1950s that Say Something Bunny creator Alison S.M. Kobayashi found, with a headline story about the play's central character

Kobayashi, a found objects artist, acquired the wire recorder, a now obsolete technology that was overtaken by the more functional tape recorder, through friends who purchased it at an estate sale. It belonged to David Newburge, the eldest son, who was using his wire recorder to tape these two get togethers. Though there are over 20 voices on the recorder, Kobayashi manages to identify each person through extensive research that would include U.S. Census records, college yearbooks and newspapers, and research on popular theater during the 1950s-70s.

For those reluctant to participate, do not worry, we are not actually required to read the lines of our character -- rather we just follow along. Kobayashi will every so often speak to us as if we are that character. She frequently interrupts the recording to segue into background about each of the characters that she has gathered from research. At the end, audience members leave feeling blown away, perhaps even a little jarred, having explored themes of history and memory, Jewish assimilation and culture in America, family, and the fleetingness of time. 

All of this comes out of a play that is built around two fairly unremarkable conversations among a family and their friends. We probably have equally unremarkable conversations like this at our own get togethers. But there is something interesting in learning how others, especially those in generations we can no longer access, spent the quotidian and banal moments of their lives.

Kobayashi's play will fascinate anyone, but I think it especially hooks those of us who have a tendency to go down rabbit holes into corner pockets of history, digging through, say, boxes of photos of strangers in Brooklyn thrift shops. Most of us come up after being submerged in this kind of a deep dive feeling like we wasted time. Maybe we mention it sheepishly to a few friends, but usually we try to move on to something more productive. Fortunately for us, Alison Kobayashi went down that rabbit hole, and came out with Say Something Bunny.

Weinstein and the outsize power of corrupt institutions

As horrifying as it is, the Harvey Weinstein story would not be nearly as engrossing if it were not also so relatable. Almost every women and some men seem to recognize in the situation of a powerful movie producer trying to coerce less powerful actresses into sex a power dynamic that they have experienced or seen. The natural and understandable response has been to demand reform of our workplaces, a demand with which I completely agree.

But I also think it would be a shame if we failed to step back and question the dominance of institutions that clearly value the success of an individual--usually a man--and the financial and status-related wins he is credited* with bringing in more than the well-being of a group. And it would be a shame if we did not step back even further to question the source of these values: a socioeconomic system that I will describe as late-stage, hyper-capitalism--one which we are still trying to save, despite all of its moral failings, its demeaning of human beings and particularly those who do not hold power.

I thought of this while reading an article by a female partner of a private equity investment firm on WBUR in which she describes an experience where her boss talks about what sexual positions she must like in front of her all male colleagues while they are all in a car. Despite having held her colleagues in high esteem, none of them stick up for her.

She ends the article by suggesting that the amount of time women had to spend guarding each other from Harvey Weinstein represents an "inefficiency" and suggests that boards of directors should "undertake a long-term view of human capital. How many talented individuals leave companies after such incidents? How much future revenue, how many hits has Miramax squandered?"

I worry that we are going to spend so much time trying to reform systems that may be hopelessly corrupt, like Hollywood and finance, and not enough time questioning the outsize role they have in our society.

It is a great point -- companies should value long-term well-being of all of its employees more than short-term profits, or whatever a person like her lecherous boss or a Harvey Weinstein bring to the table. But is this really possible? And what does it say that she has to appeal to corporate America withan argument for basic human decency that is to be couched in terms like "human capital," "inefficiency," and of course, loss of revenue.

I worry that we are going to spend so much time trying to reform systems that may be hopelessly corrupt, like Hollywood and finance, and not enough time questioning the outsize role they have in our society. Because what the Weinstein story tells us is not just that powerful people can get away with sexual assault and harassment as long as they succeed, but that one of the most influential institutions in our society does not really care about morals, ethics, or treating someone with human decency. We knew this of course -- we take it so much for granted that we don't expect Hollywood to be any other way.

Think about the institutions where gender discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment is rife: Hollywood, finance, Silicon Valley, academia.  In fact, it is true that many of the most successful organizations within these institutions are some of the worst offenders -- or at least grab the most headlines. It is also true that these institutions highly value individual success and financial gain much more than cooperation, group flourishing, basic human decency, and financial stability (but not necessarily huge profit). If you work in some of these places and are empathetic, kind, and generous, you may be at a great disadvantage. People who work in these places may also have jobs that are demanding, requiring a lot of hours, so it may be hard to leave the office and find a space for a healthier, less toxic environment.

If cooperation, group flourishing, and basic human decency, are values we want to foster in our society -- and I hope they are, but I'm honestly not sure anymore -- I think we must question the values of late-stage, hyper-capitalism and put them in their proper place. 

*I have almost no doubt that whatever success is credited to Weinstein would have been impossible without all of the people who worked for him and who surely saved his butt when he acted like a monster.

I don't care about the Las Vegas shooter's motives

In the week since a man opened fire at country music festival concertgoers from his hotel room many stories above, there has been a strong desire to understand his motives, even going so far as to write about his brain. I have read more articles than I'd like to admit on him, learning about his gambling habits, his marriage history, his real estate decisions, and his family's history -- his dad was an actual bank robber. And then I realized this morning, as I read several articles about the lax to non-existent gun laws in Nevada and across our country, the obsession over the shooter is a waste of time if our goal is to prevent mass shootings. (This is why I'm not even going to bother writing the shooter's name in this article).

There will only be one October 1, 2017, Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas, shooter. There have been and will be countless other shooting deaths across our country. There have already been 277 verified mass shootings in this year in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive, a not for profit that reports about American gun violence. 

Say after talking to his brother and his girlfriend and his neighbors and the floor manager of the slot room at the casino where he spent hours, we put together all the pieces of the Las Vegas shooter's past to come up with a motive, what good will that do us when someone else opens fire on a crowd? Then it's back to square one to deign the motive of someone who will at that point likely be dead or in jail.

The endeavoring to identify a motive is an understandable, if problematic, curiosity. Our society, myself included, has a perverse fascination with outlaws, bad guys, anti-heroes, and damaged people. But even if it is understandable, it is counter-productive because it distracts us from the real things we could do to minimize shootings, which is to regulate guns.

Guns, unlike people, are predictable. They shoot and kill or severely injure. And yet, we do not make it hard for people to get and operate these deadly products, the way we would for just about every other consumer product.

As two faculty members from Boston University's School of Public Health, Michael Siegel and Molly Pahn, have found, there has been a surge in laws that make it easier to buy guns, and even to fire a gun with immunity from prosecution--so-called "stand your ground" laws, like the one that got George Zimmerman off from killing Trayvon Martin. The "stand your ground" law was actually crafted by a former president of the National Rife Association. The NRA has also been successful at getting states to enact laws that protect the gun industry from legal liability. "No other consumer product manufacturer enjoys such broad immunity," write BU faculty Siegel and Pahn. 

And how does the NRA succeed, aside from its enormous money and political power? The NRA succeeds philosophically. It has convinced enough people that we need to hold individuals to account rather than policymakers, manufacturers, and the NRA. America is a country that focuses on individuals more than most. We like to think you and I are mostly responsible for our successes and failures. This individualism, translated to shooting, means that we focus on the shooter and his motives, as we are doing with Las Vegas, rather than on systemic changes we could make, the most obvious of which is to tighten gun regulations.

But even in the U.S., we aren't that extreme. There have been questions about improving the security at casino hotels, the security at concerts, and even whether we could identify killers through a crime gene. It's fair to ask these questions, and to try to improve security. But again, the next shooting will not be at a concert. It will be somewhere else. The common denominator will be guns. But the NRA doesn't want us to go there, and neither do their Republican supporters in Congress and in statehouses across the country. They will be fine asking questions about security and crime genes, but the one thing we cannot ask about is guns.

I wrote an article a few years ago about the relatively under-the-radar epidemic of gambling addiction in America--which oddly may now be of greater interest because of this shooting. The gambling industry, like the gun industry, liked to focus attention around gambling addiction on the individual, to the point of funding research for a neurological model or "disease point-of-view" of gambling addiction and staying away from funding any research that studied the connection between availability of gambling and levels of addiction. As one of the few researchers who studied the latter pointed out, “If I were the gambling industry, I would want to fund people who had the disease point-of-view ... because [they are] putting the source of problem gambling between the ears of the gambler.”

I'm not saying that there is no fault or accountability that an individual should have to assume for gambling addiction, or for shooting. But what I'm most concerned about is how do we prevent deaths? We tend to be more successful when we look at problems such as mass shootings as societal challenges, with societal solutions. We have done this to prevent deaths from tobacco, automobiles, and food. As interesting as it may be to understand the Vegas assailant's motives, we're not going to prevent the next mass shooting by understanding the brain of the last shooter, but by making sure the next would-be shooter does not have an arsenal of guns. 

Good reminder on why to avoid jargon

Most professions have jargon, and while such technical language is useful and even necessary, it is overused. I propose that people should try, as much as possible, to use plain language, even when speaking to others in their discipline. It is important, especially in a world of specialization, to be able to communicate to a broad group of people about what you do and why it matters. 

I was reminded of this recently by a faculty member at work, who sent me an article by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation called "A New Way to Talk about the Social Determinants of Health." Social determinants of health, or "SDOH" as they are often referred to on Twitter, is used by people in healthcare and public health to refer to how aspects of our lives like our education, income, or neighborhood, contribute to our health. It is usually thought of in contrast to the medical determinants--pharmaceuticals, surgeries, etc.-- of health or the biological determinants of health, like our genes. However, as Robert Wood Johnson's team director says in her introduction letter to the report, it is a term that does not "work on the ground." As she puts it, "For some [of our grantees] it was so patently obvious that it became a truism." 

I've always found social determinants of health clunky and unappealing, but I find myself using it not infrequently. Yet the problem is, as Robert Wood Johnson's report points out, it is not a frame that effectively persuades people that improving our schools or infrastructure can lead to improvements in health, as well as the more obvious benefits, like academic success and an easier time getting to work. A problem is that "SDOH" comes out of the perspective of someone with a strongly medical background. To someone whose training has mostly been focused on finding medical solutions to health problems, the idea of focusing on other factors is actually kind of novel. But for the rest of us, it actually may seem obvious, as Robert Wood Johnson's report suggests. What's more, the phrase has kind of an ominous mood because of the word "determinants." It makes it sound as if we are controlled by "social" factors, even though the whole idea of bringing attention to "SDOH" is to encourage people and policymakers to change aspects of our society not be determined by them. 

In any case, the Robert Wood Johnson report provides many more great, well-researched reasons why "social determinants of health" does not work in health messages and offers interesting ideas for what can work. For me, the lesson is when in doubt, do not use jargon. As a writer and communicator especially, I need to be vigilant to this and always search for what is clearer, more descriptive, and less jargon-laden.

Why I hate the word utilize, and how to avoid it

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Source: 20 words you should never use in a cover letter

While editing some web content for work the other day, I came across the word “utilize” – a word that makes me particularly upset. What you may ask is wrong with a mere word, one that is used in thousands if not millions of corporate emails per day, that is right at home in academic papers and engineering manuals?

For me, it’s larger than the word itself. Utilize is the perfect embodiment of what is wrong with professional writing today. Utilize signals not only that you may not know of what you’re speaking, but you’re insecure about it and feel the need to dress it up. If your goal is to engage people with what you’re writing, utilize will leave them cold.

Here’s my advice on how to avoid utilize and to engage more people with your writing:

  1. Don’t write from a place of insecurity. Believe what you’re writing, and admit uncertainty in your writing. If you can do this, you won’t feel compelled to dress up your prose with distracting four-dollar words.
  2. Do not trying to impress your audience, try to inform your audience. Your audience may have only the faintest idea about what you’re writing. Sprinkling in vague, dressed up words like “utilize,” “implement,” “impact,” “leverage,” and “interface,” will only lose their interest. I like to tell people who are struggling with professional writing–especially writing for the web–to imagine that they are talking about what they do to a friend at a party. When you’re talking with a friend, you try to select out the most interesting bits of information, you try to keep it fairly simple, and you try to get your friend to understand and even relate. You are trying to inform your friend not impress your friend. Even if you are kind of trying to impress your friend, you sure as heck aren’t using words like “utilize” to do it.
  3. Don’t feel an obligation to use a big or complicated word, especially when you are trying to replace a fairly non-descriptive verb. Although many of us learned in English class not to overuse verbs like “is,” “does,” “have,” “said,” and “use,” in professional writing, we often have to use these words. This is for a couple of reasons. Professional writing is not as florid as literary writing. And there are also many instances when one simply does not have enough detail or enough space to be descriptive. For example, if I’m writing that a government decided to expand a vaccination program, ideally I have enough detail to write something like the following:

The government has decided to expand their new vaccination program. To do this, they are building 55 more healthcare clinics across the country, hiring hundreds more nurses, and delivering flyers to citizens who live in rural areas to inform them about the clinics, and sending texts to people on their mobile phones.

However, I may not know this much detail about the program. So I might simply write: 

The government is expanding the vaccine program. 

I should however resist any urge to write: 

The government is implementing an expansion of the vaccine program.

Shudder. If you have a verb that offers little, it should be unobtrusive.

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Unfortunately, one of the major reasons why professional writing can be so bad, so filled with utilizations and implementations, is because people are sometimes trying to dissemble. They dress up what they’re saying because, as I alluded to above, they don’t know what they’re saying, but they feel they must look like they do know what they’re saying. That is of course one way to get through life, but it seems unsatisfying. My advice: don’t try to dress what you’re saying up in a suit if there’s no substance behind it. 

On God and the idea of righting wrongs

I believe in God. I won’t go into why at this point except to say that I don’t put much stock into the Bill Maher style analysis of whether God exists–the idea that you might as well believe in wizards, unicorns and lizard people if you believe in God–and I wonder what guides a person with his perspective through life if not a belief in higher ideals than what we see on Earth. For me, it’s that feeling that there is something greater than myself and my fellow comrades from which I derive my faith. 

I’m reminded of my belief in God when I have hungered for perceived wrongs to be righted. I think if God even had any influence, God would deny vindication. Why? Because I don’t believe we grow from being vindicated, from winning, from being right. I have had the greatest opportunity to grow when I was wrong, when I faced injustice, pain, and what some called losing. If God righted our wrongs, we wouldn’t have anything to work toward, or to grow from. I like to think this God wants us to work to become better people because that leads us to find that unparalleled ideal known as meaning. This is a God that, as one of my rabbis once said, is “all good” but not “all powerful.” God will not make the world just or right, God will however offer a light to guide you through darkness.

That was pretty deep for a Friday night. I’m going to go microwave a pupusa now. 

Reclaiming time

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-Juliet Schor, True Wealth

Why is this so hard? I am not entirely sure, but it is. We work a lot–that is one point Schor makes. I think about how good it feels when you are a master of your time, like on a Saturday when I finally clean out my refrigerator, go grocery shopping, cook a stew, go on a run, and do an errand I’ve been putting off for weeks. Reclaiming time is both something we must work on at an individual and societal level.

Self-actualization, defined, and why do people not feel entitled to it?

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to be a fully “actualized” human being. For a long time, I don’t think I felt entitled to self-actualization. It seemed overly introspective and indulgent. How can I be so focused on meeting my higher needs when some people are in circumstances that prevent them from meeting their basic needs like food and shelter?

For me the road to self-actualization has only been possible through in-person therapy. For a long time I felt guilty I was in therapy while people who “really needed it” were not. I was from a two-parent, comfortable home with no history of physical or sexual abuse. My assumption was that I was by default a healthy person and thus deserved no further self-examination even though I couldn’t help but do it. Then I began to realize this: it’s not going to matter to people whose basic needs aren’t being met what I choose to do to meet my own needs. And to the extent I can become a fuller and more emotionally healthy being, I am probably going to be a better contributor to society.

Sadly, in our culture, therapy and self-examination is often considered soft, self-indulgent, and neurotic. (The irony is that people who are spending time examining themselves are trying to free themselves of their neuroses). It’s Stuart Smalley’s “daily affirmations” and Woody Allen’s brain tumor hypochondria in Hannah and Her Sisters and the idea of “needing therapy” as a pejorative. Don’t get me wrong, I love Smalley, and Woody Allen can be funny, but they have painted a certain picture of the kinds of people who need therapy.

Back to actualization. What does it mean?

Self-actualization is a term coined by Abraham Maslow over 50 years ago referring to the goals of his most “emotionally healthy” clients. In his studies, he described the activities of those who had their basic needs gratified and were seeking a higher purpose in their lives. Maslow defined the qualities of their deeply human activities as including:
-keen sense of reality; aware of real situations
-see problems in terms of challenges and situations requiring solutions, -rather than see problems as personal complaints or excuses
-need for privacy and comfortable being alone
-reliant on own experiences and judgment; independent; not reliant on culture and environment to form opinions and views
-accepting others as they are and not trying to change people
-comfortable with oneself, despite any unconventional tendencies
-a few close intimate friends rather than many surface relationships
-sense of humor directed at oneself or the human condition
-spontaneous, creative, inventive, and original
-seek peak experiences that leave a lasting impression

— Jonathan Bartlett summarizing Abraham Maslow (of “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs”).

I am not there yet. Maybe I never will be. But the above list is incredibly inspiring. Self-actualization is about how to have a meaningful, below-the-surface life. It is about listening to that voice that asks is this it? and searching for something more even if you don’t and can’t and never will findit. (Because there is no it, is there…?)

It is interesting to me that that this journey gets scoffed off in our culture as self-indulgent. And that even uses of words such as “journey” and “affirmation” are seen as hokey. More to think about…

“I think social media sucks”

Following my social media detox post yesterday, I read this about a 19-year-old model named Essena O’Neill who very publicly quit social media and is now going through the photos she used to post and editing the captions to describe how she really felt that day–which is often pretty cruddy.

I gotta be honest: sometimes I wonder if I’m too sensitive to social media in part because I’m not a social media phenom. But after watching a couple of O’Neill’s videos, I can see that at least if you’re a person who values more than appearances, it probably isn’t going to be satisfying to focus a lot of effort to get validation on social media, even if you get a lot of likes and followers as she did. 

I don’t think the answer is total banishment. O’Neill is now using social media to spread her message about the emptiness of her old behaviors. There’s always a balance, and I’m not sure I’ve struck it yet, but I liked what my friend Flo had to say in response to my article: “When I use social media with moderation and intent, I feel it empowering me… But when I start using it to fill in a void, it creates a learned behavior that negatively impacts my ability to remain present in conversations, hangouts, etcetc.”

How scientists are fighting back against hidden biases in medical research

My article on scientists fighting back against hidden and misleading clinical trial research has been published on one of my favorite web magazines, the Pacific Standard/ pacificstand. Check it out.

And here is an excerpt:

Most of us who take a medication expect our doctor to prescribe it based on evidence. But it turns out that basic assumption is often incorrect.

In fact,many clinical trials of medical treatments—particularly negative ones—never make it to publication in academic journals, which doctors consult to make medical decisions and the media publicize in their health reporting.

[…]Even studies that are published may over-emphasize positive results—a kind of spin that we are conditioned to expect from politicians but not from clinical researchers. All of these practices—and many more variations of misleading—are known as publication bias, and they can seriously skew the evidence doctors and patients use to make health decisions.
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(Illustration: Jon Kalish)

Why we can’t always rely on medical research

An article I wrote called “Shining a Light on Hidden Medical Research: New Efforts Seek to End Publication Bias in Clinical  Trials” is now out on the 2x2 project run by Columbia University School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology (my former employer). Not only do I highlight the growing concerns around publication bias, but I talked to several sources who are working to tackle the problem.

It got promoted on Twitter by Dr. Ben Goldacre, one of the experts in this area and a crusader for medical transparency, and by Dr. Joseph Ross who does research on publication bias. I interviewed both of them for the article.

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(Illustration: Research being brushed under the rug, by Jon Kalish)

Here’s an excerpt:

Most of us who take a medication expect our doctor to prescribe it based on evidence. But it turns out that basic assumption is often incorrect.
In fact, many clinical trials of medical treatments—particularly negative ones—never make it to publication in academic journals, which doctors consult to make medical decisions and the media publicize in their health reporting. According to a 2014 systematic review in PLoS, more than half of trial results are not published, and those that are published are three times more likely to come out with positive rather than negative or null results.

…In recent years, a variety of governmental and nongovernmental groups are forming or stepping up efforts to bring transparency to medical research. What remains to be seen is whether these efforts can attack a problem that has persisted for decades.

The literature of creativity: "A genre of surpassing banality"

“What was really sick-making, though, was [Richard] Florida’s easy assumption that creativity was a thing our society valued. Our correspondent had been hearing this all his life, since his childhood in the creativity-worshipping 1970s. He had even believed it once, in the way other generations had believed in the beneficence of government or the blessings of Providence. And yet his creative friends, when considered as a group, were obviously on their way down, not up. The institutions that made their lives possible — chiefly newspapers, magazines, universities and record labels — were then entering a period of disastrous decline. The creative world as he knew it was not flowering, but dying.”

Thomas Frank in Salon

A public health perspective on gambling

I published “Gambling with America’s Health? The public health costs of legal gambling” on the Pacific Standard and the 2x2 project.

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(Image: Jon Kalish)

Here’s the nut of it,

A debate over the social and health costs of legal gambling has largely been sidelined even as availability has expanded dramatically in the last 25 years. This is not because of a lack of merit, say experts and activists, but because of the political power of the gambling industry. They allege that the industry has employed tactics in the same spirit as those of tobacco companies, which for many years misled consumers about the addictive properties of cigarettes and advertised to young people and other vulnerable consumers.

but read the whole thing.