After the war on tobacco - a campaign for self-control?

Is it really more difficult than fighting multinational corporations on every front?
Carolyn Moynihan | Jul 1 2011 | comment  

If there is one thing the responsible inhabitants of the world agree on these days it is the evil of smoking. The movement to make sucking on a cigarette a social outrage began decades ago and it has had its effect. In Australia, for example, back in 1945, 72 per cent of men were smokers; by 2007, only 21 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women were puffing on cancer sticks.

And yet in some developing countries the habit is still growing and tobacco companies are hoping to gain customers there that they have lost in the richer nations where, in any case, the war against Big Tobacco continues. In addition to the familiar “Smoking may damage your health” messages on packets, many countries mandate graphic images of the harm smoking may cause. The USA is about to follow, belatedly, with a series of warnings showing among other things, rotting teeth, a man with a hole in his throat, a dead body and a despairing child. “Among the images that didn’t make the cut,” says The Economist, “was a corpse with a toe tag.”

Still not good enough. On World No Tobacco Day (May 31st, in case you didn’t know) The World Health Organisation released some shocking figures: tobacco will kill nearly six million people this year, including 600,000 non-smokers, said WHO, because governments are not doing enough to persuade people to quit or protect others from second-hand smoke. Worse, the epidemic of tobacco-related disease and death has just begun; by 2030 the annual death toll could reach 8 million.

Australia, however, has risen to the challenge with a new and more daring attack on the industry that promotes this ghastly habit. The federal government has a law pending that would banish brand logos and attractive colours from cigarette packets, replacing them with what The Economist has called a “putrid green” background, and “the company’s name written in uniform text beneath a grisly image -- one warning shows an eye prised open by wires”.

Research on the effects of graphic warnings suggests that the strategy prompts smokers to consider quitting. The hope is that making packaging as ugly and anonymous as possible as possible will keep cigarettes under the radar of the youth market, which is probably why most Aussies seem to go along with the “plain” packaging move. If it comes off -- the tobacco companies are going to fight it in the Australian High Court, on constitutional grounds -- it may save Australia billions in health costs. New Zealand, Canada, the EU and Britain are likely to follow suit.

Good luck to them. Smoking is the largest preventable cause of death in Australia and many other countries, and second largest worldwide. If people still want to risk killing themselves in that way they will be free to do so (in private, since they are increasingly banned from public space) under a plain packaging regime, although they will have to pay a premium -- as they already do -- to indulge the habit. At the same time immature people (and this would include children, born and unborn) will receive a little more protection. Possibly.

Just think, though, Big Tobacco is only one of the malevolent Goliaths that caring and responsible authorities have to do battle with today. There is also Big Junkfood, Big Alcohol, Big Drug, Big Casino… and Big Butcher, which at least one American bioethicist sees as a threat equivalent to smoking. Says Dr Jessica Pierce:

Like cigarettes, meat has the potential to harm not only those who partake, but a great many others as well. American-style meat-eating represents a serious threat to public health, both at home and abroad. Livestock production accounts for about one-fifth of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions, making it one of the prime movers in global climate change; meat-eating contributes to global patterns of hunger and malnutrition because huge quantities of grain are diverted to feed livestock, and land is used to grow feed crops for animals rather than people. Forests are mowed down to make room for cattle. Feedlots pollute water resources and compromise air quality. And there is growing concern that livestock may spread methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Golly. A war on meat? An industry on which whole nations have been built? This will be slow starter, for sure.

Here is a better idea: how about an all-out assault on Big Porn? If smoking is the great polluter of the physical environment and destroyer of lungs, the sexual-industrial complex attacks something much more fundamental: the moral environment, and with it the wholesome development of the young. Billboards, television serials and advertising, pop music, magazines and fashion can foul the visual atmosphere and dull the soul as much as any second-hand smoke can affect us physically.

The sexualization of culture is an issue for parents in every industrialised country -- indeed, wherever the internet can be accessed. The Australian government held an inquiry into its effects on children a few years ago but so far it has not joined battle with the unscrupulous corporations who want to raise the sexual awareness of little girls. Isn’t it time for the big guns to be turned on what one independent report called “Corporate Paedophilia”?

About 50 per cent of Australian adolescents will have become sexually active by the time they are 18, while the proportion that have taken up smoking by then is around 30 per cent. What about a sex eduction class with some government-issue scare pictures of the end results of promiscuity? Jabs against the virus that can cause cervical cancer are all very well, but if “scary” works at all with teenagers (which some experts doubt) graphic representations of the disease itself might be in order.

It would be better, of course, if we were not driven to such desperate measures; better not to have these epidemics of preventable pathologies -- obesity, diabetes, cancer, addictions, STIs -- at all. But real prevention goes back to the family environment, to the work of raising children who know how to resist the blandishments of packaging and advertising, peer pressure and their own impulses; children aware of their dignity as human beings; and no government is seriously committed to supporting parents in that work -- even though it is as fundamental to public health and economic prosperity as preventing disease.

Recently the director of a New Zealand cohort study that began in the early 1970s stunned the country by reporting that it showed the benefits of cultivating self-control in children from their earliest years. We should draw our own conclusions about how well we are doing that job, said Professor Richie Poulton, by reflecting on our national debt and high teenage injury and death rates (many of them alcohol and drug linked). "There is no time at which you can't be thinking in terms of inculcating or teaching self-control skills,” he said. “They are skills that you can learn - that's the good thing about it."

Now there’s a great idea: a national campaign to foster self-control. Is it so much more difficult than fighting multinational corporations on every front?

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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