• Leading Article: The Biggest Kill; Cigarette smoking issues

    At the heart of a free society lies the principle that an individual's actions - be they howsoever destructive of himself - should be as freely chosen by the individual as is compatible with the freedom of others. Despite the evidence that smoking is the biggest single preventable cause of premature death in the western world - evidence which was reinforced in compelling detail by this week's massive report from the Health Education Council - it would be utterly wrong even to consider an eventual ban on the sale of cigarettes. Indeed, much of the current campaign to curb cigarette smoking by banning the practice in public places sails very close to unacceptable infringement of individual liberty.

     

    Nor does it come easy to recommend interference in the free-flow of advertising of a legal product that brings pleasure to millions. Since one is free to choose to smoke, should one not also be free to tell others about the reasons one chooses to do so? Since the market is the best mechanism for distributing goods throughout the economy should not the dangers of cigarette smoking be fought through the market rather than against it? Should not cigarette advertising be countered by aggressive anti-cigarette advertising? The pounds 4.3 billion of duty in this current financial year could be raided for a good many commercials before the Treasury even noticed the loss. Should not the duty be increased? Could not tobacco manufacturers be given incentives to retire machinery and provide redundancy payments for their workers? Would not practically anything be preferable, in fact, to the ban on advertising and promotion which the Health Education Council would like?

     

    The answer - sadly - is that while those who live by the market should die by the market (in the metaphorical sense) it is beyond the bounds of the libertarian cause that a market should be totally free to encourage new customers to die (in the actual, real and physical sense).

     

    Diseases caused by smoking claim about 100,000 lives a year in the UK. The figures dwarf death from road accidents, alcohol, heroin and a host of other much publicized causes. Tobacco is unique. Unlike alcohol, fast cars or other products which can be abused, it alone in normal use - used, so to speak, according to the manufacturer's instructions - is clearly established to be both addictive and significantly to increase the risk of death and disease.

     

    A new option is being made available to smokers, however. It is the vaporizer. This heats up the ingredients you wish to use but does not combust them. The result is not smoke, but vapor. Vaporizers, such as the Volcano Vaporizer, do a great job of eliminating the hundred or so dangerous carcinogens that result from combustion, or burning.

     

    Moreover both government and the tobacco industry already accept the need for a degree of control on the promotion of cigarettes. No government has permitted cigarette advertising on television for 20 years. For 14 years there have been voluntary agreements.

     

    But during that time tobacco companies have shown that whatever agreements the industry may make, even more ingenious ways can be found for circumventing them. Televised sports sponsorship has evaded the television advertising ban. Barred by the advertising code from linking smoking to daring, courage and manliness, to sporting success or to heroes of the young, the industry has put its money into sport to provide just these links.

     

    Prevented by the advertising agreement from linking smoking to healthy outdoor scenes, to suggest that those who smoke are more likely to be rich, successful and go-ahead, the industry has diversified into skiing, adventure holidays and clothing that carry brand names but escape all the restrictions of health warnings and advertising control. Day after day on television, on the commercial channels as well as the BBC, cigarettes are effectively advertised. Last year no less than 332 hours of tobacco company sponsored sport was televised - the equivalent of a month's solid viewing at 12 hours a day. In newspapers and magazines, in cinemas and on hoardings, advertisements sell a product which will kill about one in four of its regular users who smoke 20 a day.

     

    If this flood of blandishments hit only the consenting adult the argument for ending it would be impossible to sustain. But although the industry maintains that its advertising is not aimed at children and the young, it knows full well that there is no magic barrier that lets the smoking message through to adults and stops it reaching children.

     

    The evidence is increasingly abundant that children receive the message. A Department of Health and Social Services survey in Northern Ireland has shown 75 per cent of 11-15 years olds believed they had seen cigarette advertising on television, despite the fact there has been none for 20 years. Such is the effect of televised sport. Studies suggest 46 per cent of 7-15 year olds watched the Embassy snooker final last year; thirty-two per cent watched the Benson and Hedges final; a quarter the John Player rugby.

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