1990s >> 1999 >> no-1140-august-1999

TV Review


Up in Smoke

The current series on BBC1, Tobacco Wars presented by Michael Buerk, has come at a fitting time. It is at the end of a century which has seen tobacco creep up closely behind wars as one of the biggest killers of the last hundred years. And as Buerk’s programme has ably demonstrated, it was with gruesome irony that cigarettes were first introduced on a mass basis to the British working class during the First World War. Ostensibly it was to keep soldiers’ minds off the death that stalked them in the foetid battlefields of Belgium and Northern France. But little did these soldiers realise at the time that death would be stalking them again before long, even if they were fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the trenches. It was truly the case that the actions of a profit-hungry ruling class would get them one way or the other.

That the capitalist system and the economic units within it can make profits out of killing people has always been an obscenity—that they can do so perfectly legally tells you all you need to know about where power really lies in the modern world and what the priorities are of those who wield it. Even now, many if not most workers think that even if there is a risk associated with smoking, tobacco cannot be as harmful as other drugs which are banned. Otherwise they wouldn’t be banned would they? This view misses the point entirely. Drugs such as heroin and cocaine were banned by the ruling class because of the disruptive and often anti-social effects they can have on the workforce (cannabis too, with its tendency to make people somewhat lazy and carefree). Tobacco, with the powerful tobacco manufacturers acting as a pressure group with real influence, has never been put in this category.

The main problem with tobacco from the point of view of governments is the health issue, and the increased burdens its consumption places on already overstretched welfare and medical systems—hence direct taxation of the product. But just because it is legal doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous, and by the same token just because some other drugs are illegal doesn’t mean that governments aren’t prepared to sanction their use whenever necessary. For instance, the British military still keeps a large stock of amphetamine sulphate (speed) to be given to troops in the event of protracted day/night land battles. And who knows (though we may soon find out) what rubbish they were pumping into soldiers bodies during the Gulf War?

Its a drag
The reality is that tobacco is just as dangerous as most of the drugs which are banned across the Western world. A recent survey of British medical specialists found that they ranked nicotine higher in the addiction stakes than even heroin and far in advance of most other banned substances. And this is not a harmless addiction either—tobacco actually kills far more people in the world than hard drugs like heroin and cocaine put together (largely, of course, because of its more widespread use). Even so, the percentage of regular tobacco users who will die from using that product (estimates vary between one third and a half) is little if anything behind the percentage of regular heroin users who will die from consumption of that particular drug. The only real difference is that tobacco users on average stay hooked for longer, with the deleterious effects of heroin being rather more immediate, addicts dying typically within a few years of becoming addicted or else going into detoxification within the same timeframe. Addiction and death are common features of both and yet tabloid newspapers scream every Sunday about Britain’s sink council housing estates with their heroin junkie 12-year-olds, while accepting huge double-page adverts from the tobacco multinationals targeting teenagers as the next generation of cancer stick fodder.

Having successfully targeted women and young girls in recent decades under the banner of “liberation”, the tobacco companies are now spreading their tentacles into the third world, planning to bring about a massive increase in smoking in Africa just as they have recently done in east Asia. Africans too, it would seem, are just a dollar or two away from being as sophisticated as Westerners. Meanwhile the hypocritical governments who claim to have declared war on tobacco still demonstrate that they are no less in the pocket of the multinationals than they ever were, as every tinpot dictator across the globe (and Bernie Ecclestone) can well testify.

Capitalism is a system with no real regard for the health of the mass of the population, and this came out loud and clear in Michael Buerk’s programme. While the tobacco multinationals make their billions from their instruments of death, Hollywood markets them and capitalist political parties get the paybacks. The market is an economy where people really do make money from the legalised murder of the ignorant and inadequate, and it is a system which seeks to channel the disaffection of its young rebels without a cause into nothing more challenging than their own slow suicide.

And if that seems too cynical a view watch Buerk`s series and ruminate on the vast array of dodges and lies employed by the tobacco multinationals to protect their product and their profits when they have known of its serious dangers for about 40 years. And if you’re still not convinced reflect too on the top tobacco executive who was asked some years ago by one of the models advertising his company’s cigarettes why he himself didn’t smoke. “Why should I?,” he replied, “that’s for the poor and the blacks.”


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