• February 27, 2024

Give Them A Break

 Give Them A Break

Photo: Syda Productions

Photo: Syda Productions

Smokers suffer a greater degree of ostracization than those engaging in other risky activities.

By George Gay

Although some people will probably complain that I am being irresponsible, I want to present a piece about tobacco smoking and smokers that puts them in a more favorable light than the one under which they usually appear—a piece that, especially, questions why combustible tobacco products and their consumers are treated as villains, justifiably subjected to massive sanctions, when other risky products and their consumers are not. After all, this is a tobacco magazine.

In recent times, the promoters of new generation devices have been allowed largely to shape the smoking debate by reconfiguring the narrative of tobacco control with the inclusion of substitute products. It has been a no-contest with, on one side of the debate, the almost voiceless smoker, and on the other, the highly vocal public health officials, tobacco harm reduction advocates and politicians, many of whom make a comfortable living around the dubious claim that tobacco smoking is the major cause of preventable diseases and death and endlessly squabbling about how to go about preventing these outcomes. This is all very well up to a point because most of these interventionists would claim to have the best of intentions, but it puts me in mind of what Mark Twain supposedly once said: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” So I shall.

But before doing so, I should make the point that I would discourage anybody from taking up cigarette smoking if they value their health. I should add, too, that I think it is perfectly legitimate for interventionists to try to encourage cigarette smokers to quit their habit, provided they treat smokers with respect—provided they treat smokers as ends in themselves, not as means to a profitable end. And provided they stick to the facts. They should not allow their mission to become tainted with, for instance, the automatic parroting of smoking myths and unproven and clearly questionable smoking statistics.

‘Preventable Deaths’

I have long been fascinated by the idea alluded to above of “preventable deaths,” which is often applied to deaths attributed to tobacco smoking, though it could be applied to any number of causes. Of course, death cannot be prevented once life has started. What is meant, I think, is that there is the potential for life to be prolonged by various interventions, including, but not confined to, giving up smoking and other risky habits and activities. But the question that is rarely asked concerns whether prolonging life is a good thing, and the reason it is not asked, I suspect, is that, generally, those who promote prolonging lives through such interventions as quitting smoking live much more comfortably than those who smoke. Why wouldn’t these smokers want to live longer, the interventionists might ask? To which I would reply: Use your imagination, or reference Thomas Hobbes.

Let’s take that a little further by asking why smokers would not heed the seemingly sensible advice of the interventionists and give up their risky habit. Well, one reason, I suspect, is that having been lied to continuously, smokers do not necessarily trust what the interventionists have to say. One clear example of this continuing deceit is the way in which interventionists claim to be attacking tobacco smoking on behalf of “children,” a word that is usually not clearly defined. Of course, at best, these interventionists are trying to protect the adults that children become, not the children. Although the interventionists try to lay at the door of smoking responsibility for damage done to children, that responsibility lies elsewhere—often where the interventionists, in this case mainly politicians, find it inconvenient to intervene. If the protection of children is paramount, why is tobacco smoking, which I imagine has caused the death of a small number of children, singled out when the death toll among young people is down mostly to infectious diseases in the case of the very young, and mostly to violence, including road traffic accidents, in the case of older young people?

One of the most spiteful regulations pointlessly controls the delivery levels of cigarettes, which means that the smoker is presented with a degraded product while tobacco manufacturers are presented with a potential for increased profits.

George Gay, European Editor, Tobacco Reporter

One of Many Risky Activities

Tobacco smoking and smokers seem to be the subject of discrimination here, presumably because smoking is a minority activity while driving is close to being ubiquitous in many parts of the world. In general, the interventionists are happy to show how keen they are to protect children by coming down heavily on smoking and smokers, something that will have no effect, but are less keen in respect of taking the necessary actions in respect of driving and drivers. Such hypocrisy is even further to the front when it comes to attitudes toward smoking and drinking. Smoking, like drinking, might lead to your death, but of the two, only drinking is likely to lead to your death at a young age, and only drinking is likely to seriously disrupt your life in the interim. According to a Dec. 30 story in The Guardian, alcohol is reckoned to play a part in “about 39 percent of all violent crime in the U.K.” This was a story whose focus was a recent rise in “offenders” being fitted with “sobriety tags” that can tell probation officers if the offenders have been drinking, potentially landing them back in jail.

Is it surprising, therefore, that drinking causes a greater societal burden and, therefore, a greater economic burden on the U.K. than smoking? And yet it is only smokers who are penalized to any extent, even though whatever health issues smoking causes are largely confined to the smoker while those caused by drivers and drinkers reach out to embrace their victims. There are no graphic health warnings on cars or bottles of wine, at least in England, where I live, and people are not forced to buy a car or a bottle of wine without seeing it first, from behind closed doors, as is the case with cigarettes.

And it is not as if the authorities are unaware that these differing attitudes to smoking and drinking are not justifiable. According to another Dec. 30 story in The Guardian, in France, Olivier Cottencin, the head of the national body of university professors in addiction studies who coordinated a recent letter calling on the French state to promote a month of abstinence from alcohol, said it was surprising that the government backed a tobacco-free month every November, but not an alcohol-free month. Later in the story, it was said that a government-backed campaign in January 2023 had shown people clinking their glasses and saying, “sante” followed by the question, “Isn’t it a bit absurd to wish someone good health with alcohol?” 

It is also interesting to compare the different treatments meted out to the products consumed and used by smokers, drinkers and drivers. The manufacturers of cars and alcohol are allowed to change and glamorize their products to make them more appealing and to advertise their new products. But, in many parts of the world, tobacco manufacturers have been forced to make cigarettes as unappealing as is possible through regulations aimed at limiting ingredients and controlling almost all aspects of packaging. And it goes without saying that tobacco cannot be advertised. One of the most spiteful regulations in force in some places pointlessly controls the delivery levels of cigarettes, which, the regulators must know, means that the smoker is presented with a degraded product while tobacco manufacturers, whom the regulators profess to hold in contempt, are presented with a potential for increased profits.

Yes, even tobacco manufacturers receive a better deal than smokers, especially when it comes to financial incentives and disincentives. It is often said that smokers tend to be some of the most financially impoverished within societies because they smoke. This must be one of the most absurd ideas ever to come out of the mouths of the interventionists, and there have been some corkers. Are these people saying quitting smoking is guaranteed to lift a person out of poverty? Surely not. Many smokers in the U.K. have been dealt an almost unplayable hand that has meant they have been born into financially struggling families, been allowed, as children, to go undernourished by an uncaring government, been poorly educated and therefore been unable to find well-paying work. And, just to rub it in, those who have been dealt a better hand call constantly for the price of cigarettes, though not that of alcohol, to be increased. In his Nov. 22, 2023, Autumn Statement, the U.K. Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, who was not born into poverty and who was privately educated, increased the duty on hand-rolling tobacco by 12 percent with immediate effect while freezing the duty on alcohol until August this year. Hand-rolling tobacco is generally consumed by the most impoverished smokers while alcohol is supped by relatively well-off politicians, their advisers and guests at bars within the parliamentary estate.

While smoking being seen as a root cause of poverty is absurd, another idea put forward by interventionists must take the cake: the denormalization of smoking. The upshot of this is that, by default, drinking alcohol, which can quickly lead to people losing mental and physical faculties, is regarded as normal while smoking, which does not cause such upset, is not regarded as normal. So the person walking down the street after smoking a cigarette is regarded as having indulged in an activity that is not normal while the person with a few drinks inside him, clothing disheveled, staggering down the same street, unable to articulate the few thoughts in his head and in danger of stepping into the path of a moving vehicle, is seen as having partaken in a normal activity. To whom does this make sense?  

Surely, the time is well overdue to give smokers, and I am talking about committed smokers, a break in the form of a better deal. They should not be given a special deal, just a deal that echoes the one drinkers are given in most parts of the world. Especially, smokers should be able to buy at reasonable prices a wide range of products from a wide range of manufacturers, big and small, that are not intentionally degraded and to enjoy them while receiving only the same level of warnings as are directed at drinkers.

I know it is unfashionable to think this way, but it is possible that some tobacco smokers have done a risk/benefit assessment of their habit, factoring in the pollution that will anyway surround them, and decided that they want to continue to smoke. This must be especially true in the case of pipe and cigar smokers. And it is further possible that some of these smokers have done an environmental audit and decided that, for the sake of future generations, they will continue to smoke rather than switch to vapes.