Reviews | Tobacco: Still troubling, even for a tobacco company
But Altria and its spin-off Philip Morris International have released a peculiar full page – what? Ads? Not exactly. These mists of words in the big newspapers say:
“From a tobacco company to a tobacco harm reduction company…steering adult smokers away from cigarettes…towards less harmful choices. Using “more inclusive” approaches and a “fierce commitment to science” as a “global community” transcending “provincial thinking,” Altria and PMI are making “smokeless products that eliminate the burning,” products that “ are not without risk and deliver nicotine, which is addictive,” but are preferable to continued smoking.
Their rhetoric is unfortunately not eccentric: today, many companies coat their commercial calculations with a syrup of fashionable blabla. As this geyser of corporate spurt winds down, no progressive trope has gone unused: ending “politics of exclusion” will ameliorate “climate change” and “institutionalized inequities.” PMI wants to achieve “a smoke-free future” by selling non-combustible tobacco products – e-cigarettes. PMI and Altria rightly resent those who insist that only zero-risk products are virtuous alternatives to the known high risks of cigarettes.
The behavior of millions of Americans generates an ocean of data that cannot be acquired any other way – data on the harm reduction of smokeless and combustion-free products. Over time, do they wean smokers off cigarettes? Or do they become, especially with flavors that delight young people, a gateway to smoking? We will know, unless government regulations truncate the experience.
The regulation of tobacco – a legal product that is harmful when used as intended and marketed with heavily regulated advertising – is problematic. Democracy presupposes a certain threshold of personal responsibility, individual rationality and information efficiency. But four centuries after King James I (1566-1625) published his “Counterblaste to Tobacco,” millions have failed to get the message.
Covid-19 has sparked increased interest in public health policy, including this: The most effective thing government does, in terms of social benefits per dollar spent, is to disseminate information – about the dangers of smoking , the benefits of seat belts, careful eating habits, etc.
In the early days of television, the sponsor of NBC’s “Camel News Caravan” required that anchorman John Cameron Swayze always have a lit Camel cigarette in view. In 1964, the American Surgeon General announced what was common knowledge long before a character in a short story by O. 1906’s Henry doesn’t use common slang for cigarettes: “Say, sport, have you got a coffin nail on you?” That inhaling smoke from a burning plant was unhealthy was clear to King James I – Britain’s coffers were soon to swell with the tobacco revenues of his colony of Virginia – who denounced tobacco as “harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs”. That tobacco is addictive has also been known for a long time. In 1845 John Quincy Adams, then 78 years old, said: “In my youth I was addicted to tobacco.
Yet in 2020, the first year of a respiratory disease pandemic, smoking, which is still the nation’s leading cause of preventable death (it has claimed far more lives than all of America’s wars combined) has increased: for the first times in 20 years, cigarette sales have increased. (at 203.7 billion). In January, John Ortved of the New York Times wrote a dark and hilarious report about young renegade smokers, like the Columbia University medical student who declined to be identified for fear that her career in medicine could be affected. Another young woman said the “sexy guys I like” consider smoking (oxymoron alert) “sophisticated grunge.” She obviously doesn’t subscribe to the axiom that kissing a smoker is like licking an ashtray.
But an ingenious public service advertisement in late 20th century California’s anti-tobacco campaign read, “I tried twice and got, uh, my whole face flushed and I couldn’t inhale and I felt like a jerk and, ah, I never tried again, which is the same thing that happened to me with sex. The percentage of Californian smokers has dropped by 17% in three years.
In the mid-1950s, nearly half of American adults smoked. Today, an eighth do. The reduction is staggering; the persistence of 1 in 8 is more so. In the mid-1950s, smoking was a marker of sophistication and momentum. Today it is downgraded. Quite a change for a nation whose father was an aristocratic tobacco farmer.