Monday, 15 September 2008

Post #81 Hire a Hall / Everything (Coughing up some sense)

Enough with the partisan politics. I've meant for some time to address an issue that may be the greatest public health problem in Australia and is, amazingly enough, the most easily solved. Can you guess?

It's tobacco use. Note I don't write abuse. It's a substance for which there is no dichotomy of usage types because there is no safe, responsible level of consumption. Use and abuse are synonymous for this weed. The anomalies in the treatment of this plant are enormous. If someone attempted to propagate its use as a recreational substance today, they would be stamped flat in a nanosecond, but it continues to kill with comparative impunity. Other substances, such as the opiates, cocainoids and cannabinoids have been ruthlessly proscribed without hesitation or regard to the useful pharmaceutical or industrial uses to which they can be put. The only explanation apparent is that reason has little to do with why governments prohibit substances; the social context is the determinant. The exemption of tobacco to this point from prohibition is due purely to the fact that there have been and are, so many addicted to it. Those addicts vote. The dealers who supply them have a lot of money to throw about for lobbying purposes. Governments also have an addiction to the revenues from tobacco taxes. The fact that many more people die from tobacco-related disease than from use of all the prohibited substances put together doesn't make a dent in this situation.

I read recently that Western Australia has the lowest rate of smoking in Australia: one in seven adults. That figure doesn't explain an interesting change in the demographic of smoking; very few of those adults began using tobacco after reaching their eighteenth birthdays. Where it was once unremarkable for people in their twenties, thirties, forties and even fifties to begin smoking, it's now almost unheard of in Australia. The pervasive anti-tobacco education programme has ensured that almost anyone old enough to be called a legal adult has too much understanding of the nature of the tobacco industry and their product to be taken in. The only age cadres from which new tobacco addicts can be recruited are children and junior teenagers. I.e. those who haven't reached their sixteenth birthdays. The industry says it doesn't sell its product to children. I call this one of the Three Great Lies of the tobacco industry. Here they are:

1. Tobacco isn't harmful to your health; it may even be good for you.

2. Tobacco smoking/chewing isn't physically addictive.

3. The tobacco industry does not market its products to children.

The first two were disproven by the research of the tobacco companies themselves, although they kept on telling them until they were proven to be lying by force of scientific argument and leakage of their own studies on the subjects. The despicable history of this behaviour is well-enough documented that I won't waste space on it here. You can find plenty about the lies of the tobacco industry by way of a bit of Googling. You can also find their stooges at work posting about "the lies of the anti-tobacco lobby". Most of the latter is focussed on attacking attempts at punitive taxation of tobacco in the USA; what a revenue-raising rort is all is, etc. Perhaps it is; I don't care at all, because I'm arguing for absolute prohibition of tobacco and the abolition of the industries that purvey the stuff.

The main argument against prohibition is that it hasn't worked with other substances and the prohibition of alcohol in the USA in the early years of the 20th Century is the exemplar of this folly. I've always waited for this factoid to receive the gut-kick it deserves and been disappointed. The anti-tobacco campaigners haven't ever said this to my knowledge; perhaps I'll be the first:

The prohibition of alcohol in the USA is not analogous to any attempt to prohibit tobacco in Australia. The American attempt was effected by a Constitutional amendment which was obtained by focussed, high-profile lobbying of legislators and did not have genuine majority support in the community. How can an amendment to the US Constitution be made without community support? Simple: In the US the Constitution is amended by legislators' votes alone. The proposed amendment is put before the Congress and, if passed, is referred to the State legislatures for ratification. The safety net in the Australian system is a requirement for ratification by the electors in a referendum. Grossly unpopular measures can't be introduced to the Australian constitution because of this. The lack of this in the US explains why the prohibition of alcohol failed so dismally; it never really had the heartfelt support of the majority to begin with.

The other flaw in using alcohol as an instrument of analogous argument is that it is a type of fundamental organic compound which probably occurs throughout the Universe. It can be derived from the fermentation/distillation of any organic matter with a high sugar and/or starch content. You may as well try probiting carbon and hydrogen. Tobacco, conversely, is a plant group which could actually be made extinct. It isn't the only plant type which produces nicotine, but it's the only one which does so in commercially-useful quantities. My ideal solution to tobacco would be a disease which would wipe the tobacco plant completely from the Earth. While we're waiting for that, let's go back to the Third Great Lie. It's easily disproven; if the tobacco industry didn't market its product to the young it would be out of business very quickly in First World countries. It isn't out of business so it must be. Once you've sussed that, it's a question of knowing where to look.

My analysis of their strategy leads me to believe that product placement is the main vehicle of marketing to the young and exceptionally impressionable. Tobacco use appears in connection with macho action movies, sexual encounters (the post-coital cigarette, etc.), sports events (car racing, yachting). They constantly push the edges of the restraints on their high-profile marketing and it takes a long while for the legislators to catch up. One of the saddest things I've seen was a former Health minister of the Commonwealth of Australia bragging in 2004 that, by the end of 2006, tobacco advertising would be banned from yacht spinnakers . That was supposed to be a big achievement...

The tragedy is that the process of education is very slow and every day a new crop of victims are added to the multitude already hooked. Can we really wait for this toxin to abate with time? We can, but I believe we should not. More than 80% of Australian adults are non-smokers; snuff (powdered tobacco) is already banned in Australia; the chewing of tobacco is almost an unknown practice; there's enough in those numbers to make the last push against tobacco feasible.

The last defence of the tobacco industry, when confronted with the death toll, is that theirs is a legal product. The time has come to take that privilege away.

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