Tobacco is the Root of all Evil

A young girl ties tobacco leaves onto sticks to prepare them for curing in East Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara. © 2015 Marcus Bleasdale for Human Rights Watch

The desperate need to deal with the smoking problem by outlawing tobacco could not be more plainly made than in the six bulleted points of ASH’s (Action on Smoking and Health’s) online Daily News of 30 May 2017.

Here they are:

  • Tobacco kills more than 7 million people per year and is costing the world economy USD 1.4 trillion annually

The death toll has gone up from the previous oft-quoted figure of six million per year.

  • Disposed cigarette butts pose a potential ecological risk to the ocean
  • Essex: Dunmow flat fire caused by badly discarded cigarette
  • Tobacco production ‘breaches human rights laws’

These three speak for themselves.

  • Scotland: Scientists find that smoking harms livers of unborn babies

It was discovered in 1950 that smoking causes lung cancer. How many additional harmful effects on human health need to be found before cigarettes are banned?

  • Austria: Study shows increasing the price of tobacco reduces consumption

How far will the price of tobacco need to be increased so that no one can afford to buy it anymore?

Let’s return to the first point: the statistic of seven million people being killed every year at a cost to the world economy of $1.4 trillion. This is from a slickly produced fifty page Discussion Paper, funded by the UK government, entitled ‘The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control: an Accelerator (sic) for Sustainable Development.’

It’s written in the WHO’s usual turgid prose, with the inevitable Executive summary (an ordinary summary wouldn’t cut the mustard, apparently) and patronizingly illustrated with photos of smiling people from what are euphemistically called low- and middle-income countries.

This is the cringe-making style of the writing:

…generate greater awareness of the different narratives and entry-points for effective engagement with non-health sector stakeholders…strengthening governance to address inequalities and social exclusion that drive poor health

We soon come to the point, and this is where I want to make my point:

The paper’s overarching purpose is to support the acceleration of tobacco control efforts as part of broader SDG implementation…

Heaven knows there are enough problems in poor countries – I’m sorry, I mean low- and middle-income countries – with corruption, pollution, repression of women and minorities, child labour, female genital mutilation, religious intolerance, droughts, famines, wars, terrorism, HIV-AIDS, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, landmine injuries, etc. But now, to these horrendous and seemingly intractable problems in so many parts of the world, we have to add tobacco growing and smoking.

No doubt sustainable development goals (SDG) are important for the greater happiness of mankind and deserving of all the help that rich countries can provide, and it’s clear that poorer countries’ problems are only made worse by growing tobacco and people smoking. But what the writers of this report want to do is to attach the tobacco control agenda to the much broader one of sustainable development.

Of course, people in poor countries are just as worthy as anyone else of being encouraged to stop smoking by having taxes increased on cigarettes and of having the dangers of smoking pointed out to them by horrible pictures on cigarette packs and of reducing exposure to cigarette advertisements by regulating them, etc. But these and other ‘tobacco control’ measures in this context are drops in the ocean.

Now consider if the tobacco controllers campaigned instead, or as well, for tobacco abolition. If this were successful, the demand for cigarettes would go down dramatically, there would be a smaller and eventually no market for tobacco products and all the problems from this cause of damage to human health and environmental degradation would eventually disappear.

It’s not so simple as that, of course, but at least let this objective be clearly stated and let a working party be set up, funded by the UK and other governments and the WHO, to look into the best way to achieve this aim.

Because in the meantime it’s not just unacceptable – it’s outrageous – that a product as dangerous as cigarettes is allowed to be sold.

Text © Gabriel Symonds

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