Outing the Pushers

I am in awe of Clementine Ford and Karen Pickering’s capacity to slice to the heart of an issue with maximum economy, and then put in an extra twist no one saw coming. I wouldn’t change a word of their respective articles about the public villification of Chrissie Swan. But I would add a few.

Because the point that they both either miss or avoid is that Swan’s addiction to nicotine didn’t just happen. I knew one person who took up smoking quite deliberately as an adult with a full knowledge of what he was doing. He had a self destructive streak a mile wide, but I very much doubt that was the case with Swan. Playing the odds, she probably started smoking when she was too young to be legally sold the cancer sticks, but the local dispenser never asked for ID. And almost certainly she was lured in by attractive packaging and an association with something cool. Without the slightly shadow of a doubt she was kept hooked by additives put in the tobacco by cigarette companies who’d spent millions finding out the exact flavours that would keep young women coming back for more. And then lied about it under oath.

Where is the outrage at them? What is their excuse? The worker on the factory floor, the wage slave behind the counter who didn’t ask for ID, they can use the excuse that they needed a job, and maybe didn’t have a lot of alternatives. But the CEO? The Head of Marketing? The scientist who ran the tests on the best way to get people to kill themselves? Why are people not flooding the phone lines on talkback radio to tell them they don’t have the right to poison unborn babies?

Selling tobacco is legal. It needs to stay legal because the consequences of prohibition would probably be worse (although I think the nature of the drug makes this less certain than with alcohol or heroin). And I do worry that the push to ban smoking in public places is getting dangerously close to prohibition with more negatives than positives. But we seem to be losing the concept that the fact that something is legal doesn’t make it ok.

We need to reclaim the fact that people can be allowed to do something, but should be utterly socially ostracised for them. It shouldn’t be possible to admit you hold a senior position in a tobacco company and still have people talk to you in social situations, let alone be employed for other jobs. When Nick Griener gets to work each day his first, last and only thought (aside from whether some cost cutting is possible) is how he can hook more Chrissie Swans on a product that will kill half of them, lead 90% of them to wish they had never gone near it, and might do some harm to their children in the process. Yet his views are sought as an elder statesman.

Donna Staunton lied both to a parliamentary committee and on national TV to preserve the capacity of the merchants of death to keep on killing people with as little hinderance as possible, yet she was still made communications director of our most important scientific institution. A place where, unsurprisingly she did a truly terrible job and may well have been involved in suppressing publicity for research that offended her politics. Why did it take years to get her out of that job (our contribution to which is possibly Australasian Science‘s finest hour)? All those people who are barking at Swan, and many more besides, should have been rattling the gates of Campbell  just at the thought a tobacco promoter was being placed in such a senior position at an organisation charged with protecting our health.

This matters not just for the sake of those whose lives nicotine can turn to hell, but for everyone. As Naomi Oreskes has made abundantly clear, it is the tobacco companies, at least as much as the coal barons and oil kings who have built the climate change denial movement into the powerhouse it is.

As both Ford and Pickering point out, public shaming is not a good way of treating people battling addictions, but I think it has a much higher chance of success when applied to greedy millionaires addicted to nothing but money and maybe the taste of other’s pain.

Update: I’m told by Bill King, who would know, that additives play only a small role in the addictiveness of cigarettes. I realise that this somewhat weakens my argument as to the evil of people who add them in order to generate more customers. Nevertheless, presumably they are doing this in the hope that they’ll find something that either makes tobacco more addictive, or to make it more likely that people starting out will tolerate the flavour, rather than having the normal reaction and never wanting to go near one again after coughing painfully the first time. On the other hand, Bill also tells me Donna Staunton was appointed to the board of the Australian Breast Cancer Centre, presumably because she had done so much to bolster the need for such an organisation.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
This entry was posted in Australasian Science, Enemies of science. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Outing the Pushers

  1. Kathryn Barnsley says:

    Stephen, whilst Bill has a good point, there are others of us who think that additives paly a strong role in addictiveness and attractiveness of cigarettes to new users, and in influencing uptake at a crucial time in a child’s life. Matthew Peters has recently written on this in the RACGP journal. A 2007 World Health Organisation Technical Report entitled The Scientific Basis of Tobacco Product Regulation, says at page 37:

    Published research strongly suggests that youth targeting through marketing and product modifications influences youth smoking behaviour.

    Page 6, paragraphs 32 to 35:

    Flavoured tobacco products may play a crucial role in this process, promoting youth initiation and helping young occasional smokers to become daily smokers by reducing or masking the natural harshness and taste of tobacco smoke. Their potential for increased harm at the individual and population level may go unrecognized without appropriate governmental regulation of the technology used in this new Generation of flavoured tobacco products.

    At page 26:

    Studies based on the tobacco industry’s internal documents suggest that flavouring agents may also play an important role in the industry’s targeting of young and inexperienced smokers. Menthol has been used to target new smokers across different ethnic groups, and additives such as chocolate, vanillin and licorice have been part of an intensive industry effort to increase the market share of the Camel brand within the youth market. Additives have also been shown to promote smoking among youths by masking the negative taste of tobacco smoke with flavours.”

    AFP at http://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2012/november/towards-an-endgame-for-tobacco/
    I have also proposed that reguulation of cigarette engineering is in fact the next step we need to take to reduce smoking rates, in additiona to phasing out smoking by gradually raising the legal smoking age. In other words prohibitng the sale of cigarettes to anyone born after th year 2000. See http://www.menzies.utas.edu.au/pdf/Final%20Cigarette%20Engineering%20Oceania%20201011.pdf
    http://tasmaniantimes.com/index.php?/article/we-should-phase-out-of-the-sale-of-tobacco-in-australia-by-2020/ and

  2. Thanks Kathryn, really interesting to see references to research on the effectiveness of additives.

    I’d have to say that I’m uncomfortable with the idea of a ban on selling cigarettes to those born after a certain date. I think the history of prohibition is not a happy story, and while I can see the argument that people won’t want what they have never had, I think it is at least as likely that younger people will resent being banned from something because of their birthdate and it will make smoking rebellious and cool again.

    I guess it would be a good thing if one country tried it so we all got to witness the results, but generally my thinking is that if you really, really want to do something as stupid as taking up smoking you should be allowed to do so. Just as I believe people should be allowed to commit suicide if that is genuinely their desire. But in the same way as I would try to talk someone perched on a bridge out of jumping I think we should make sure that someone is both adult and truly committed to the idea before they stick tobacco in their mouth and light it, and that means pursuing companies that make it look like a good idea.

    • Kathryn Barnsley says:

      Once again Stephen i beg to differ. Tasmania could try this. Between 2001 and 2006 there were 3460 deaths caused by smoking, 151 from illicit drugs and 611 from alcohol in Tasmania: plus 437 suicides, 337 road vehicle, 35 assault and 34 fires. There are more deaths from tobacco than all of these other causes put together.

      We should take smoking rates to very low levels because of the high cost to human life, and to our health system. 60% of acute admissions to the Royal Hobart hospital are smokers, yet less than 25 % of the population smokes.

      These are not just numbers to me but real people. These deaths are neither pleasant nor peaceful. Lung cancer deaths in women exceed breast cancer deaths – but no one notices.

      It is drawing a long bow to call this prohibition, as it is a long term phasing out. Currently about twelve hundred 17 year olds smoke who will turn 18 and then be able to buy cigarettes. That number is likely to fall by 2018 when the first cohort of child smokers reaches 18 years. Therefore there would only be a small number of new smokers. Unable to buy the product.

      Remember in 1996 we raised the smoking age from 16 to 18? One day these kids were permitted to buy smokes, the next day they were not. Did the mafia take over? Was there a crime wave? No. Was there a massive increase in illegal tobacco or untaxed tobacco or “chop chop”. 1998 and 1999 proceeded as any other year. Remembering that they are not punished for smoking. Smoking itself is not penalised under age.

      If we look at Wayne Hall’s excellent work on prohibition he says that
      “The standard account of the effects of national prohibition in the United States is wrong in claiming that it had no effect on alcohol use.

      On balance, Prohibition probably reduced per capita alcohol use and alcohol-related harm, but these benefits eroded over time as an organized black market developed and public support for NP declined.

      Those who remain unconvinced by the historical evidence of its effects on alcohol use should similarly moderate their confidence in conclusions about its effects on crime, because the same type of evidence is used in each case.”

      …It is incorrect to claim that the US experience of NP indicates that prohibition as a means of regulating alcohol is always doomed to failure. Experience with the raising the MLDA in the United States shows that partial prohibitions can produce substantial public health benefits at an acceptable social cost, in the absence of substantial additional expenditure on enforcement.”
      Hall W. What are the policy lessons of National Alcohol Prohibition in the United States, 1920–1933? Addiction 2010; 105: 1164–73.

      Another writer says:
      “Today, it is easy to say that the goal of total prohibition was impossible and the means therefore were unnecessarily severe—that, for example, National Prohibition could have survived had the drys been willing to compromise by permitting beer and light wine—but from the perspective of 1913 the rejection of alternate modes of liquor control makes more sense.

      ….. Nevertheless, the possibility remains that in 1933 a less restrictive form of Prohibition could have satisfied the economic concerns that drove Repeal while still controlling the use of alcohol in its most dangerous forms.”

      There is an appetite for banning drugs like heroin and crack and marijuana, so we already have selective prohibition of drugs, and yes the illicits are associated with crime.

      We should be looking for different ways to deal with all harmful drugs, and partial or phased or “managed prohibition” (like the use of medical methadone programs need to be supported).
      Blocker goes on to say;
      ” Arguments that assume that Prohibition was a failure have been deployed most effectively against laws prohibiting tobacco and guns, but they have been ignored by those waging the war on other drugs since the 1980s, which is directed toward the same teetotal goal as National Prohibition.

      Simplistic assumptions about government’s ability to legislate morals, whether pro or con, find no support in the historical record. As historian Ian Tyrrell writes, “each drug subject to restrictions needs to be carefully investigated in terms of its conditions of production, its value to an illicit trade, the ability to conceal the substance, and its effects on both the individual and society at large.”

      From a historical perspective, no prediction is certain, and no path is forever barred—not even the return of alcohol prohibition in some form. Historical context matters.”
      Blocker J. S. Jr. Did prohibition really work? Alcohol prohibition as a public health innovation. Am J Public Health 2006; 96: 233–43.

      We need to come up with more innovative solutions to reduce tobacco intake, and this idea is one of a suite of measures that should be considered, not dismissed out of hand.

  3. Sorry I can’t agree. Raising the age at which people could smoke from 16-18 was never likely to create a great deal of problems. People who can’t legally drink, drive or vote were not likely to be up in arms about the loss of the right to do something that always looked like an anachronism by comparison. And no one was going to set up a black market in such circumstances – 16 year old smokers usually have friends who are 18, so they just got them to buy the smokes. It was a good thing to do, but hardly likely to have a huge impact.

    It’s a different thing when you are creating what will eventually become a massive potential market. People turning 18 in five years time may just get their 19 year old friends to buy, but ten years later the 18 year olds will turn to an organised black market. Moreover, with people inclined to play generational politics – for example blaming baby boomers for the fact house prices have gone beserk, smoking would become the symbol of a disenfranchised generation.

    As to the alcohol prohibition revisionism, I’m not expert, but I’m sceptical. Making beer and wine legal while banning spirits would have cut down the damage, but also the benefits – I suspect beer is a bigger problem in the US than whisky.

    I’m more knowledgeable on the issue of currently illegal drugs. It is completely clear that the ban on things like heroin has been an utter disaster. I’ve had friends die from overdoses because that only happened because all they had access to was street drugs with varying concentrations. And yes, they were on methadone programs. They help, but they don’t solve the problem. My beloved high school English teacher died of AIDS. He got it from unsafe sex, but the epidemic would never have run so far so fast if it was not for the lack of access to clean injecting equipment, a direct consequence of the decision to ban a drug that was once available in cough syrup.

    The benefits for countries like the Portugal that decriminalise have been huge and unambiguous, and would be larger still if they didn’t have to cope with prohibition on their doorstep. The war on drugs is the reason for most of the developed world’s crime problem, the reason 2 million Americans are locked up in horrific prisons with the near-certainty of ruined lives when they leave. Try getting a job in the US with a drug conviction on your record. If you can’t, what alternative do you have to putting the skills you learned in prison to use through crime?

    Moreover, it is the ban on existing drugs that has driven the search for new, temporarily legal substances. I’ve done some articles on novel drugs like Meow Meow. It’s terrifying, but these things are only on the market because of the constant search to find a way to evade the laws against things like ecstasy, which while hardly benign are much less damaging.

    It’s true that tobacco, which has to be consumed in an easy to spot way in large, hard to hide, doses would be a better target for prohibition than pills. And yes tobacco kills more people than all illicit drugs combined many times over. But we are making progress in driving tobacco consumption down through methods other than prohibition. Ideas should be considered, but only in the light of the success or failure of related experiments.

  4. Kathryn Barnsley says:

    Well ….I guess we are just going to continue to disagree. In my view smoking will not be reduced to substantially low levels without more intervention. It will remain the biggest killer in our country for many decades. Remember that we are not talking about prohibition here – I am talking about a phase out of sales, over time, coupled with other interventions such as the Simon Chapman proposed licensing system for existing smokers, reductions in retail outlets and continuing tax hikes. People can grow their own if they want. The important thing is to break the power of the tobacco industry, which is the vector of all the disease.

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