• April 18, 2024

Thriving Against the Odds

 Thriving Against the Odds
Image: K

Pondering the industry’s remarkable longevity as Tobacco Reporter celebrates its 150th anniversary.

By George Gay

Longevity is good, right? Most people probably want to live longer, or, out of fear, postpone death—at least until tomorrow. And, until quite recently, average life expectancy had been generally increasing and allowing most of us to outlive previous predictions. For instance, if I had lived to the average age predicted for people born in the year that I was born, I would have been dead about a dozen years ago. But, based on current predictions, I still have until the end of June this year—according to my calculations, June 29, to be precise.

This makes me wonder what tobacco control people might mean when they declare that a smoker died “prematurely.” What standard are they comparing the smoker’s lifespan against? We aren’t born stamped with sell-by dates.

I started to wonder about such matters when, in this, the 150th year of Tobacco Reporter, I was asked to write about longevity as it relates to the tobacco industry, and it occurred to me that there must be some relationship between the longevity of people, companies and industries, though I imagine that relationship is complex and becoming more so given the march of robotics, artificial intelligence and environmental breakdown. The pharmaceutical industry, for instance, is a product of people while the increasing longevity of those people is largely down to the drugs and other medical interventions developed by the industry, whose longevity, therefore, seems to be assured.

A Hardy Lot

But the longevity of the tobacco industry raises different issues because it is said to be “killing” the smokers who are its main customers, so the question arises as to why the industry has managed to survive and even thrive, especially during the past six decades or so when the risks of smoking have become widely known and the industry has had ranged against it governments, a huge tobacco control industry and much of the media.

But let’s start with another, related question. Why have smokers continued with their habit in the face of massive disincentives? After all, the consumption of cigarettes has generally been described during the past six decades as everything from risky to deadly. Such consumption is said to constitute an addiction and to cause poverty and multiple diseases that “kill” about half or two-thirds of cigarette smokers, along with nonsmokers, a toll amounting to about 1 million lives a year and predicted to reach 1 billion during this century. It is said to be the major cause of “premature” and even “preventable” deaths worldwide and to cost societies much more than it contributes, both financially and emotionally. Carelessly discarded cigarettes and butts are blamed for fires and significant environmental damage while tobacco products have been degraded through regulation, and smoke is said to discolor and make everything it touches smelly. Smoking, and therefore smokers, have been “denormalized,” and, to cap it all, cigarettes are said by some to have no inherent value.

And yet 1 billion smokers continue to smoke, and nonsmokers continue to take up smoking. Why? Is an eighth of the world’s population insane? Are these people recklessly obstinate, or do they not believe, or choose not to believe, the above? I don’t think so. I think the cause can be traced to tobacco control and the strategies that it has used, which have included the dissemination of misleading and ill-thought-out propaganda that has engendered in smokers a healthy skepticism. I don’t want to go through all of the questionable issues raised in the paragraph above, but it is worth pointing out that a lot of smokers would be rightly insulted by the claims that their smoking caused them to be poor and that cigarettes have no inherent value. In many cases, their impoverishment was caused by the life chances, or lack of them, they were handed at birth, and so cigarettes provide one of few pleasures available to them.

And on that subject, it would be wrong to ignore the importance of the illegal trade in cigarettes in helping to keep smoking rates up in difficult times—in allowing smokers to continue with their habit when they cannot afford licit products. Governments, tobacco control and tobacco manufacturers have aligned to rail against this business, but once again, they have put forward some of the most crass and unconvincing arguments, blaming smokers but not those who impose taxes and price increases.

Of course, tobacco control would claim that smoking continues because of nicotine addiction, though this cannot be a factor in nonsmokers taking up smoking. And it certainly cannot be the only reason because if it were, a type of automatic, generational stop-smoking system would kick in. In fact, I don’t believe that addiction is a very important factor, or at least it needn’t be. But, for whatever reasons, tobacco control has been at pains to medicalize smoking—to claim that smokers cannot quit without interventions by the medical profession working with the pharmaceutical industry or, more lately, with tobacco harm reduction advocates.

And here we get a glimpse of why the tobacco industry—and many of the tobacco companies of which the industry is composed—has been so resilient in recent times: flexibility. With the launch of reduced-risk products, the aims of the industry in regard to cigarettes are in line with those of tobacco control, and even surpass them, I suspect, since it has a future beyond cigarettes whereas tobacco control has not. In other words, the tobacco industry has been subsumed, though not welcomed, into what has become the colossal tobacco control industry while still selling tobacco, mostly cigarettes. Some might call this sleight of hand rather than flexibility, but it has worked and does work.

An Irrational World

This is all well and good, but it doesn’t explain how the tobacco industry managed to survive and even prosper during the 50 years or so between the time when the risks of tobacco consumption loudly entered the public discourse and the time when the industry started out in the lower risk business. How can one explain why, when governments came to believe that huge numbers of lives and dollars were being lost to smoking, no serious, long-term attempt was ever made anywhere in the world to ban cigarette smoking?

There is at least one powerful, specific reason for this, but firstly I think I should mention what I think is the most powerful general reason: the fact that we do not live in a rational world, something that gets forgotten and leads to much unnecessary anguish and disappointment. Remember, within the world of tobacco control, for instance, 5 percent equals no percent. And looking further afield, most of the damaging complaints leveled at the tobacco industry can also be leveled at other industries, including but not restricted to the alcohol, arms and automobile industries, and no serious, long-term efforts have ever been made to stop the sale of arms and automobiles nor the sale of alcohol in most of the world. I guess that if you are a glass-half-full sort of person, you might argue that there is a certain consistency to our irrationality, and perhaps that brings you comfort. Where this consistency breaks down, however, is in respect of the reactions to the damage caused by these products, which in the case of alcohol, arms and automobiles is largely to adopt a head-in-the-sand approach while in the case of tobacco, it is to heap opprobrium on smokers, tobacco companies and the industry.

Why this discrimination? I’m running out of space here, so I shall have to answer that question briefly and perhaps without as much rigor as I would like to employ. The reason, in my view, is that many of those who govern us like to be driven around in big, polluting vehicles and are not adverse to touching the buttons in their arm rests to order the slaughter of innocent people, their own citizens and others, with technically advanced weaponry, but they are morally opposed to tobacco smoking. I should mention by way of explanation, perhaps, that they also like to drink.

The Benefit of Bulk

Beyond irrationality, the major reason why the tobacco industry was able to thrive was down to its size, the foundations of which were built up before the risks of smoking were widely known. Right from the start, it was able to acquire its raw materials at favorable rates while being able to increase the prices of the products made from that tobacco. It could afford the best scientists and lobbyists to support its causes, it could afford the best lawyers to defend it when needed and, anyway, the cost of any fines that were imposed could be passed onto smokers. Extraordinarily, even when the tobacco manufacturers went from denial to admitting that their products caused harm, there was little change.

Crucially, its size meant that for a long time, the industry was able to argue that even if its products were harming smokers, it was providing work across the world, from the tobacco fields to the boardrooms. Millions were employed growing, selling, processing, transporting and manufacturing tobacco. And many others were employed in the businesses that fed into these activities, and others still in the wholesale, retail and advertising sectors.

And even when the employment argument started to unwind in the face of such developments as wholesale company consolidations, globalization, the introduction of new technologies into tobacco fields and factories, and the ending of tobacco advertising and promotions, little changed because governments were hooked on tobacco taxes, and it was a lot easier and less costly not to rock the boat—to collect those taxes from two or three big, efficient manufacturers than from multiple small-sized and medium-sized players. It was another case where the manufacturers were able to align themselves with those who supposedly opposed them. It wasn’t and isn’t a loving relationship, more a marriage of convenience, but it worked and is still working.

Enduring Legacy

One other factor that should be mentioned here is tradition, which must exist in some sort of relationship to longevity and which has bound smokers together in a sense of camaraderie, whether, as 60 years ago, in majority groupings at social events or more lately as minorities huddled together outside pubs. The cigarette was able to lay claim to being a traditional product also because, with the advent of ever more advanced machinery, it became, leaving aside its risky aspect, an almost perfect product, one that was refined but remained largely the same for decades. You could argue, and certainly I would, that cigarettes started to lose the respectability that tradition bestows when regulations were introduced to degrade these products and their packaging and when consolidated manufacturers, chasing profits and presumably in thrall to the idea that cigarettes had become simply nicotine-delivery systems, reduced the range of products on offer, especially in respect of taste.

Of course, it is true to say that tobacco had never aspired to the sorts of appellation and vintage certifications that wine boasts, and now it would not be allowed to, but for a long while, there was a hint of such quality assurances in phrases such as: “It’s the tobacco that counts.” So it is unsurprising that, arguably, until the arrival of unconscionable levels of taxes, generic products and the oddly named “value” cigarettes, brand loyalty among cigarette smokers must have been just about the highest of any consumer group. Indeed, in another example of how governments have helped tobacco manufacturers, or at least individual manufacturers, a type of brand loyalty has presumably picked up again in recent years in those countries where retailers are required to keep cigarettes under lock and key.

Additionally, cigarettes scored heavily in the sorts of ritualistic activities that surround much tradition. In fact, even now, the industry is at pains to try to keep some of the ritualistic traditions alive in lower risk products. It is interesting, too, that despite the “denormalization” of smoking, officially, tobacco remains a solid part of the fabric of society. In a recent story on consumer price indices, a writer noted, with some surprise, that the U.K. Office of National Statistics still tracked, among other things, four different packs of cigarettes and rolling tobacco—along with e-cigarettes.

But enough of all this backwards looking stuff. What about the future? Well, I guess that tobacco control will continue with its often ludicrous strategies because of its failure to understand smokers, and governments will continue to rip off smokers because they can while they both take their time coming round to the view that abstinence doesn’t work and tobacco harm reduction does. Meanwhile, tobacco manufacturers will likely retain their alignments, all the while motoring on, at first being driven by hybrid tobacco and nicotine businesses before moving on to cleaner, nicotine fuels alone.

Or will they? The premature death of tobacco and, especially, cigarettes has been predicted for as long as I can remember, and they ain’t dead yet. Indeed, perhaps this is one area where talk of a preventable death is not so dumb. Perhaps tobacco products have a lot of life left in them, especially since, as seems increasingly likely, populations become more stressed as the world is plunged into forever wars and environmental catastrophe by those morally opposed to smoking.