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.