Nick Naylor is a handsome, smooth-talking tobacco spokesman who attempts to influence the act of people in daily life and the vice-president of a tobacco lobby called the “Academy of Tobacco Studies”, which has been researching whether smoking tobacco causes lung diseases or not. They claim that their research—funded primarily by tobacco companies—has found no definitive evidence for it. Nick’s job is mainly defending Big Tobacco on television programs by presenting this research to the public. Naylor and his friends, firearm lobbyist Bobby Jay Bliss and alcohol lobbyist Polly Bailey, meet every week and jokingly call themselves the “Merchants of Death” or “The MOD Squad”.
As anti-tobacco campaigns mount and numbers of young smokers decline, Naylor suggests that product placement of cigarettes could once again boost cigarette sales. Naylor’s boss, BR, sends Naylor to Los Angeles to bargain for cigarette placement in upcoming movies. Naylor takes along his young son, Joey, in hopes of bonding with him. The next day, Naylor is sent to meet with Lorne Lutch, the cancer-stricken man who once played the Marlboro Man in cigarette ads and is now campaigning against cigarettes. As his son watches, Naylor successfully offers Lutch a suitcase of money for his silence. During the drive back, Nick and Joey discuss the beauty of argument.
Senator Finistirre, one of Naylor’s most vehement critics, is the promoter of a bill to add a skull and crossbones POISON warning to cigarette packaging. During a televised debate with Finistirre, Naylor receives a death threat from a caller. Despite the threat, Naylor still plans to appear before a U.S. Senate committee to fight Finistirre’s bill. Naylor is then kidnapped by a clandestine group and covered in nicotine patches. Awakening in a hospital, he gets to know that he is saved due to smoking a lot of cigarettes which made him somewhat immune to nicotine. But now he is very sensitive to tobacco and cannot smoke cigarettes.
Meanwhile, Naylor has been seduced by a young reporter named Heather Holloway. During their steamy fling, the besotted Naylor tells Holloway all about his life and career—information that she happily publishes in an exposé that appears just after the kidnapping. Her article relentlessly criticizes Naylor and his work, exposing Lutch’s bribe, the product-placement scheme, and the MOD squad. It accuses Naylor of training his son Joey to follow his amoral example. All public sympathy due to Naylor’s kidnapping evaporates, and Naylor is fired by BR.
Naylor falls into depression until Joey helps him recall the integrity in his job of defending corporations that almost no one feels deserve a defense. Rejuvenated, Naylor tells the press about his affair with Holloway and promises to clear the names of everyone mentioned in her article. He also declares that he will still appear before the Senate committee. At the hearing, Naylor admits to the dangers of smoking but argues that public awareness is already high enough without extra warnings. He emphasizes consumer choice and responsibility and, to the dismay of Senator Finistirre, claims that if tobacco companies are guilty of tobacco-related deaths, then perhaps Finistirre’s state of Vermont, as a major cheese producer, is likewise guilty of cholesterol-related deaths.
BR congratulates Naylor on the speech and offers him his old job but Naylor has a change of heart. Seeing Big Tobacco settling claims of liability, Naylor remarks that he has left just in time. He also mentions Heather was humiliated upon being terminated by the paper for her article and is working as a weather reporter on a local news station. Naylor supports his son’s newfound interest in debating and opens a private lobbying firm. The MOD squad continues to meet with new members that represent the fast-food, oil, and biohazard industries. Now Naylor runs an agency called Naylor Strategic Relations and consults i. e. cellphone industry representatives concerned about claims that cellphones cause brain cancer, he narrates: “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent.”