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27 August 96

No to more curbs on smoking

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick explains why he is against the proposed curbs on tobacco sales

President Bill Clinton's proposals to label tobacco a 'drug of addiction' and to subject the industry to stricter regulation through the Food and Drug Administration have provoked a predictable uproar from cigarette manufacturers. Clinton's anti-smoking measures are however popular among radical anti-tobacco campaigners and medical and public health authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Demands for similar restrictions on the sale and advertising of tobacco products-and criticisms of tobacco company sponsorship of sporting activities and academic institutions-are certain to intensify. Just as Clinton calculates that his gesture in taking what one commentator calls 'the moral high ground' against tobacco will enhance his position in the forthcoming presidential contest with Bob Dole (already identified as a friend of the tobacco industry) so we can expect that New Labour will take a firmer anti-smoking line.

The fact that smoking is bad for health has been widely recognised for at least 30 years, contributing to a steady decline in cigarette consumption in the USA and Britain. It is true that, within this general pattern of decline, there has been a slight increase in smoking among young people and among women; there is also a striking trend for poorer people to smoke more than those on higher income.

Why do people continue to smoke even though they know that it is bad for them and even though cigarettes are expensive? The reasons are undoubtedly complex. No doubt young people smoke partly in defiance of the advice of their elders. Interviews with young women with children who smoke suggest that they enjoy having a cigarette as one of the few things they do just for themselves, providing a moment of self-indulgence in a life dictated by the demands of others.

Whatever the reason people continue a habit that may have detrimental effects on their health, more restrictions on smoking are likely to benefit only politicians out to make moral gestures. They may make cigarettes more difficult to obtain and more expensive-tobacco revenues are already one of the most regressive forms of taxation-but they are unlikely deter smoking. Indeed, like recent anti-drug campaigns targeted at young people, they may well produce a contrary effect.

The most damaging aspect of the clamour for curbs on smoking is the image of the pathetic individual it promotes. From the perspective of the new moral guardians of public health we are all so feeble and vulnerable that we need special protection from the fiendish cigarette advertisers who may otherwise dupe us into buying their deadly products if we so much as glimpse a cigarette company logo on the shirt of a cricketer or tennis player. While emphasising their concern to discourage children from smoking, they want to treat us all like children. As we are thought to be incapable of making our own judgements, they are going to step in to protect us from ourselves. Once duped by the advertising, we will be hooked by the nicotine, the pathetic victims of a form of chemical addiction which then destines us to premature death-unless we are fortunate enough to be rescued by long-term professional counselling or some other form of therapy.

The moral high ground of the public health zealots now patronised by Clinton and Blair presumes the degradation of the citizen of modern society to the level of helpless child or depraved drug addict. It's enough to make you crave a fag.

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