Before my 18th birthday I'd probably attended a thousand Catholic masses - a great many, but many fewer than the number of hours I've spent organizing against tobacco sponsorships over the years. What do the two have to do with each other?
That's exactly what I started asking myself after watching the Vatican's royal procession of old men in robes and realizing that the global Catholic Church and the global smokes industry are becoming creepily similar.
For starters, there's a saying that if the Church gets you when you're young, it has you for life. The tobacco biz uses the same model to maintain and expand its markets. Get children hooked early and you'll have them until the grave - an early one at that.
Much has been made of exploding Church membership in Africa and Asia over the last 25 years (about 137 per cent and 69 per cent respectively) while churches in North America empty.
The Church has hit a roadblock here, and for good reason. We know too much - sexual and physical abuse of children by the clergy, cultural destruction of First Nations people, the effectiveness of condoms for fighting AIDS/HIV - and way too much about the benefits of running large organizations in transparent and democratically accountable ways.
In business-speak, in North America, which was once a lucrative market for the Church, growth has slowed and new consumers must be found. North Americans' smart-assed questioning of authority and utopian love of democracy, and Canada's lefty, queer-loving judiciary have helped create a climate inhospitable to the merchandising targets of these robed religious entrepreneurs.
Believe me, the cigarette manufacturers of the world know their pain. It wasn't that long ago that North America was the world's most lucrative cigarette market. In the early 1980s, Canada had the highest per capita consumption of cigarettes in the world. But things are getting more difficult. The market is starting to shrink.
Again, we know too much: the health dangers and the cost to families of early deaths of their loved ones. We also know too much about the tobacco manufacturers' sustained campaigns of lies.
"If you are a tobacco executive doing 20-year projections,' explains Francis Thompson, policy analyst for the Non-Smokers' Rights Association in Ottawa, "your future is not in Canada. It's in countries like China and India.' Now, doesn't that sound familiar?
Take China. According to Thompson, smoking rates for men are about 50 per cent. Throw in the potential market of female inhalers in a country whose population is growing along with its income levels and you have the perfect setting for a bonanza.
Another benefit for the industry in China is that despite its economic explosion, civil society is still quite underdeveloped, a convenient situation for keeping uncomfortable info under wraps. Says Thompson, "Awareness levels about the dangers of tobacco use are quite low.' Just a guess, but that's probably exactly how the industry would like them to stay.
I doubt the Catholic Church, which by some estimates is baptizing 100,000 adults in China every year, is posting a Buyer Beware sticker at the baptismal font. No friendly FYI's: "Oh, by the way, we'd like to remind you never to leave your children alone with one of us, okay?' The Church is doubtless anticipating none of the pesky sniping about the role of women or internal democracy that it gets in the West. And its stand against the use of condoms finds support among some African men, the studies tell us, who don't want to wear the things anyway even though today a single woman in Africa stands a better chance of avoiding AIDS than a married woman.
In other words, the Church, like the tobacco industry, is seeking out new markets in unsuspecting countries where its old, deeply flawed and in some instances criminal activity can take root. Unlike a pack of smokes, however, the Catholic Church does not come with warning labels about its dangers.