Smoking – a choice or a tobacco industry-designed addiction?

1 September 2012

TAIMA CAMPBELL ‘plain packages’ the need to tell the truth about the tobacco industry.

Drive past any hospital and you will see smokers – staff and patients – outside in the cold having a cigarette. This is a sight that generates strong opinions amongst the public and health professionals alike.

It is easy to ‘blame’ the smoker – many do. Most argue that smokers have a choice and so should ‘take responsibility’ for their actions. Smokers blame the ‘public health police’ who are impacting on their freedom to inhale a product sold over the counter in the local dairy.

The first cigarette might have been a choice – if you were immune to the displays of tobacco products for sale behind shop counters or seeing your parents and peers smoke. In New Zealand, research shows the average age people start smoking is just fourteen-and-a-half. Once people started smoking, the physiology of addiction did the rest.

Cigarettes are highly effective nicotine delivery devices. They have been designed by the tobacco industry to deliver the dose of nicotine that smokers need every few hours to relieve the imminent symptoms of withdrawal. This is the cycle that smokers live – not by choice, ask any who have tried to quit. If there is blame to be laid, let’s take a look at the tobacco industry.

Professor Ruth Malone is a nurse and researcher from the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at the University of California, San Francisco, who recently visited New Zealand. She has been examining the tobacco industry and its efforts to undermine public health policies and maximise profit for years. Her research has involved searching through the Legacy Tobacco Documents, a digital library containing more than 13 million documents created by major tobacco companies related to their advertising, manufacturing, marketing, sales, and scientific research activities.

There in black and white is the tobacco industry’s overt and covert intent to market cigarettes to our children, to women, to minority groups, to us – including the infamous comments of an R. J. Reynolds Tobacco executive recalled by former Winston cigarettes ad model David Goerlitz: “We don’t smoke the shit, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black, and the stupid”.

These millions of documents have now been used as part of a campaign to denormalise the tobacco industry in California, where there is now a smoking prevalence rate of 11.9%.

Malone says the tobacco industry has been fudging the truth and manipulating science for years. This was well traversed at the MaÌ„ori Affairs Select Committee Inquiry into the tobacco industry in 2010. Members of the Committee had the opportunity to ask British American Tobacco executives’ questions about their marketing strategies and product safety. By his own admission, a tobacco manager admitted nicotine is addictive and no cigarette is safe.

On her visit, Malone applauded New Zealand’s tobacco control efforts. She acknowledged that

New Zealand will shortly be banning tobacco product displays in shops and removing the last bastion of tobacco branding by considering plain packing. What’s missing, she said, is sharing the truth about the tobacco industry with the New Zealand public.

Where is the truth about the deliberate tactics employed by the tobacco industry to increase global tobacco consumption? Where are the facts about the industry including additives and flavourings like menthol to make them easier to smoke, or the truth about the environmental devastation of tobacco farming in third world countries? This is what we need to know.

Where is the truth about the efforts tobacco companies have gone to in order to secure trade agreements that will enable them to maximise their profits? Are our politicians immune to the generous overtures of the tobacco industry over cocktails and canapés in return for protection of free trade?

Earlier this year, Mike Moore – the former prime minister and director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and current New Zealand ambassador to the US – co-hosted the Governors and Ambassadors World Trade Reception, whose sponsors included tobacco company Phillip Morris International, in Washington DC.

As a party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the New Zealand Government is obliged to protect public health policies from the interests of the tobacco industry. Moore’s co-hosting of the event sponsored by the tobacco industry is in conflict with the FCTC. In response to critic’s concerns, Trade Minister Tim Groser backed Moore’s hosting role and gave assurance that TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade agreement negotiators were well aware of the ‘tobacco issues’ raised.

I hope that they remember this when plain packaging of cigarettes is introduced here and Phillip Morris decides to take New Zealand to court claiming a breach of free trade – like the makers of Marlboro cigarettes are still trying to do to the Australian government under another trade agreement (a separate court case to the constitutional challenge lodged by several tobacco companies against plain packaging that was rejected in August by the Australian High Court).

New Zealand has the goal of being a smokefree nation by 2025. This means phasing out tobacco sales to achieve a near zero prevalence rate in this country.

To achieve this, Ruth Malone’s advice is to ‘pull back the curtain’ on the tobacco industry. We need to expose how multi-national tobacco companies are making obscene profits marketing and pushing a highly addictive product that will kill thousands of New Zealanders this year.

We need to get outraged about how the tobacco industry has ‘played’ us. Smokers were never in control. The tobacco industry has socialised and manipulated us from childhood into an industry-designed addiction. This is not a normal industry. Let’s not pretend it is.

The College of Nurses Aotearoa recently made an oral submission to the Finance and Expenditure Committee on the Customs and Excise (Tobacco Products—Budget Measures) Amendment Bill. The submission supported an excise tax increase of 40 per cent in 2013 followed by three successive 20 per cent increases between 2014 and2016, and removing the duty-free tobacco allowance.

We encourage nurses to make a submission by October 5 on the government’s proposal to introduce plain packaging of tobacco products here (go to plain packaging proposal at www.health.govt.nz). Let’s remove the last place the tobacco industry can market this addiction.

Taima Campbell is co-chair of the College of Nurses Aotearoa.

References are available by emailing editor@nursingreview.co.nz