When even the American tobacco companies cave in to the government's latest health kick, argues Cheryl Hudson, the future is bleak for smokers in Britain
Who killed the Marlboro man?
Some say the Marlboro Man died of cancer brought on by too many cigarettes, and that it was his own fault. If he were to fall sick today, he might have a better chance of pinning the blame on the companies that sold him the deadly weed.
In June this year American tobacco giant Philip Morris joined other tobacco companies in signing away $368.5 billion in a national 'guilt pledge'. Under an agreement reached with state governments and private trial lawyers, tobacco companies agreed to pay out $308 billion in compensatory damages to settle existing lawsuits; another $60 billion will fund public health programmes and health cover for uninsured children; and $500 million will finance anti-smoking advertising campaigns.
A good thing? As a smoker facing possible related medical costs, I would like to think I could con big business into helping me out. But the moralism that has forced the tobacco companies onto the defensive in America, banned tobacco advertising in Britain, and informed a whole series of restrictions on smokers' lives on both sides of the Atlantic means I am more worried about my freedom than my health.
The bizarre spectacle of American tobacco companies choosing to advertise against their own product did not even cause a raised eyebrow. Not only were the tobacco companies widely chastised for not going far enough, they were also told that they would have to foot the bill for enforcing the rules against themselves. If smoking among American youths is not reduced by 50 per cent over the next seven years, tobacco companies will be liable for $80 million for every percentage point they fall short of that target.
Tobacco companies have not always been so down on themselves. Just three years ago in 1994, Geoffrey Bible took the helm at Philip Morris and launched a crusade for smokers' rights. Bible began a furious advertising campaign and started filing lawsuits against those who dissed his company. He was quoted in the Independent on Sunday as saying, 'We are not going to be anybody's punchbag...When you are right and you fight, you win' (5 November 1995). It did not take long for the chairman's bravado to melt into weak-kneed capitulation.
Sceptics have argued that there must be something in the deal for the tobacco companies. Well, there is, but it is not really what you would call a bargain. Their $368.5 billion buys them immunity from further class action legal suits and an annual cap of $5 billion on individual compensation payments. In fact, by caving in, big tobacco has embarked on a suicide mission. Under the terms of the settlement, tobacco companies have assumed responsibility for the health of all Americans who continue to smoke, and are charged with discouraging others from taking up the habit.
Even that has not got the government off their backs. Last month Bill Clinton passed judgement on the negotiated settlement with the tobacco companies. Rather than applauding their self-sacrifice, he outlined further steps to be taken in the fight against the evil weed. The June agreement was presented as a starting point rather than as a final settlement. Clinton wants tough congressional action to double the price of cigarettes and to give the federal Food and Drug Administration firm control over the sale of cigarettes as classified 'drug delivery devices'.
So why have the cigarette giants made such an about turn? To pose as a defender of smoker's rights seemed perfectly rational for an industry whose profits depend on those rights being exercised. But something other than self-interest propelled big tobacco to sign up to the terms of the recent agreement. It looks much more like a collapse of confidence than a careful PR ploy.
American business has not been immune from the demands for safety prevalent in the 1990s, when the avoidance of risk has become the mantra of Clinton's administration. From guns to child abuse to Gulf War syndrome, Clinton has made it his mission to protect Americans from the dangers all around them. In office, Clinton has begun forging a new moral code to police America's behaviour, one couched in terms of risk rather than sin. Smoking, as a risky activity, was the perfect target for his brand of personal Puritanism.
Perhaps this is irrelevant to Blair's Britain. America, after all, is the land of Puritanism and Prohibition. Surely we would never go as far as that. Think again. The current crusade against smoking is as unprecedented in America as it is here.
The prohibition of alcohol in 1920s America was an unpopular and coercive measure driven by a rural backward-looking morality. Urban dwellers resisted it and eventually bootlegging made a mockery of it. It was not only out of keeping with the times, but it was a futile attempt to turn the clock back to a more innocent age. By contrast, smoking prohibitions are thoroughly in keeping with the mood of the 1990s. Widespread calls for protection from all risks in life mark this decade out from anything that went before. Tony Blair is just as ready as Bill Clinton to take up the role of guardian of the public health. Indeed, if Clinton didn't inhale, Blair never even lit up.
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are now queuing to set themselves up as the people who will keep us safe and protect us from the risks around us: even if those risks are self-inflicted. With a lifestyle choice such as smoking, the role of the authorities - and now big business - becomes one of protecting us from ourselves. The result is that citizens are treated like little kids, incapable of managing our own lives.
I recently went out on the town in Los Angeles, looking for a little wild excitement. After dinner, I reached for my cigarettes, but was told the restaurant was smoke-free. Even in the night clubs I was told to put my cigarette out. I was dismayed to find out that there is in fact a city-wide ban on smoking in public places. This may not seem like a major problem, especially to non-smokers who dislike having smoke puffed in their face, but surely smokers and non-smokers are able to negotiate such trivial matters among themselves. It would seem not. Bans, regulations and controls are all necessary, and they really are for our own good. That night, I felt as if I were in a kindergarten rather than one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world.
Britain is moving down the same road; having long since imported the American invention of staff guiltily puffing outside office buildings, a public ban on smoking is now under discussion here. Yet these official measures and the moralism behind them are proving to be popular. In the recent negotiations with tobacco companies in America, it was President Clinton who set the ball rolling. At his suggestion, Mississippi governor Michael Moore contacted R J Reynolds and Philip Morris to set up the first meeting. But it was public support for a more responsible smoking policy, and the flood of individual and class action lawsuits against the tobacco companies, which prompted the companies' participation in the talks and their eventual capitulation.
Even worse, smokers are now joining in the anti-smoking crusade, by presenting themselves as victims of unscrupulous big companies. What else would lead hundreds of life-long smokers to sue cigarette companies for damaging their lungs? It is typical of these times, in which we are continually being encouraged to blame outside influences for what we do, and discouraged from taking responsibility for our own actions. And so smokers play the victim too, blaming the producer for choices they themselves have made.
The public support for the tobacco companies' settlement acts as a smokescreen for what the negotiations really represent: pure contempt for people. This is the only relevant parallel with the era of Prohibition. In those dark days political deals were done behind closed doors. The smoke-filled room used to be the place where decisions were made out of the reach of the masses. Now political, legal and business elites are getting together in smoke-free rooms to negotiate deals that manipulate the silent, self-polluting masses. Michael Moore and Geoffrey Bible clearly view the American public as weak-willed, easily manipulated and unable to make decisions for themselves. Clinton and Blair know what is best for us, apparently, and are going to make sure we see things their way.
Whatever my personal opinions on the question 'to smoke or not to smoke?', my major objection to the moralism of anti-smoking in the States and in Britain is that I do not like being told what to do by the likes of Clinton and Blair.
As a pack-a-day smoker, I am well aware of the risks involved in my habit. It is a risk I think is worth taking. The bottom line is that it is a personal decision, and should be of no concern to politicians. So get out of my face, and give me a light.
Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997