Opinion: Big tobacco

POSTED: 08/18/11 3:13 PM

Big tobacco is on the war path against the American Food and Drug Administration over the introduction of anti-smoking warnings. The FDA wants to depict stuff like dead bodies, diseases lungs and rotting teeth on cigarette packages to warn consumers against the health hazards smoking poses. R.J. Reynolds is one of four companies that have joined forces for a law suit arguing that imposing these warnings on producers of lawful products violates the right to free speech.
Hmmm. In Europe cheerful messages like Smoking Kills! Have been around for years and nobody makes a big deal of it. But in America, the country of unlimited possibilities, such government interference with free marketers is still frowned upon.
Big tobacco has a point government don’t dare argue with: cigarettes are lawful products, just like whisky, sliced, bread, tomatoes and cucumbers, and unlike the so-called forbidden substances like cocaine, heroin, crack and the relatively more innocent marijuana.
Those lawful cigarettes cost the American economy billions of dollars every year in terms of lost productivity and premature deaths. Between 1997 and 2001, the annual smoke-related productivity loss jumped by $10 billion over the previous four years to $92 billion. Smoke-related healthcare cost amounted to more than $75 billion.
Those figures have not improved in the past ten years. Without wading into a sea of incomprehensible figures, we’d like to go back to the core question. If cigarettes are so bad for our health, and if smoking costs communities billions of dollars in healthcare cost and lost productivity, why are cigarettes still considered lawful products?
What is, against this background, the argument to declare war on drugs? That war is costing communities also billions of dollars a year, while it is hard to argue that for instance cocaine or marijuana are that much worse for one’s health than smoking like a chimney for forty years.
In Europe we see the European Union do a weird balancing act: the Union subsidizes anti-smoking campaigns and at the same time it subsidizes tobacco growers. Sure enough, the Union also imposes these anti-smoking messages on a package of smokes, but hey – a real smoker does not get exited, depressed or impressed by this.
Then what is the real solution? Let’s assume that cigarettes are lawful products and that this remains so. After all, everybody is entitled to her or his own method of suicide. Smoking kills, but the ones who care least about such a message are the smokers themselves.
Why are those messages there in the first place? To discourage people from smoking? Our bet is that these messages even appeal to at least some smokers. Isn’t it daring to light up, knowing that the product is going to kill you in the end? What a dare!
Are these messages there to bring down smoke-related healthcare costs? Well, that one is apparently not working. Is there an alternative?
Sure, there is, but don’t ask politicians to propose it.
The alternative is simple, straightforward, and until now socially completely unacceptable. The key word is responsibility.
People who willingly and knowingly stick to behavior that will require in the long term expensive medical care, will have to pay themselves for the consequences. Basically this means that healthcare insurance will become so expensive that smokers won’t be able to afford it.
Excluding smokers from medical care? Hmm, that goes against the Hippocratic Oath, and doctors won’t accept that.
It is, any doctor worth her or his salt would argue, not ethical. Point taken. But how ethical is it to stick to a behavior, again: willingly and knowingly, that costs the community tons of money every year? Isn’t that a bit like, uh, profiteering?
Putting cigarettes in the same bag as cocaine and other recreational drugs won’t help either, even though a cigarette is probably the number one recreational drug in the world. Making cigarettes illegal will create an attractive new criminal circuit. The Marlboro Man will quickly learn how to make even m ore bucks out of tobacco products – and the pressure on healthcare systems won’t change.
The only chance we have in the fight against smoking is to make it socially unacceptable. That requires initiatives on the individual level – for instance by not allowing people to smoke in one’s home, or by shunning aspiring lovers who smoke. Government-inspired smoking bans help, but there will always be an enforcement issue.
People-driven anti-smoking actions will be more effective than a government-driven top-down approach.
Big tobacco in the United States has a tough fight on its hands, because already now less and less Americans smoke. The tobacco—producers are losing ground, a process that has been going on for years, and they probably feel the FDA-measure – which becomes effective in September, as just another nail in their coffin.
The thing is – there are already plenty of nails in it, and somehow the industry seems to find ways to remain profitable. As long as that is the case, big tobacco will always find new customers – dead bodies and rotten teeth on their cigarette packages or not.

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