The Drag Factor

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'We accept an interest in people's health as a basic responsibility, paramount to every other consideration in our business.' Who might have made such an altruistic statement of intent? A health food store? A bicycle company? Well, no. This was the Tobacco Industry Research Committee.

To be fair to them, that was 50 years ago. Since then the devastating health effects of smoking have become ever more apparent. According to The Tobacco Atlas by Judith Mackay and Michael Eriksen, cigarettes kill half of all lifetime users. So there are half a billion people alive today who will eventually be killed by tobacco.

But the tobacco industry - surprise, surprise - has not been at great pains to advertise such horrific figures. In fact, it is only since 1998, when a US court judgement forced the big tobacco corporations to make their internal documents available, that the extent of their attempts to subvert regulation has become clear.

British American Tobacco (BAT) remains at large despite suggestions in its own files of involvement with large volumes of smuggled ciggie sticks. It denies such claims, and in March the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) dropped a three and a half year investigation into the allegations, deciding to keep its report secret. But research from the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine suggests that the corporation still has a case to answer.

The researchers allege that contraband cigarettes - often referred to euphemistically in BAT's internal documents as 'general trade' - were smuggled into China via Hong Kong to circumvent and undermine import restrictions. So in 1990 China accounted for 10.5 billion legally imported cigarettes - and BAT records show sales of 28 billion. Similarly, faced with the threat of labelling legislation in Thailand, a BAT internal memo says, 'We need to be ready to pump in GT [general trade] stocks in case the supply is disrupted by the regulation.'

The industry also faces many questions regarding its knowledge of the health effects of its product. As the House of Commons Health Committee summarised in 2000, 'It seems to us that the companies have sought to undermine the scientific consensus until such time as that position appears ridiculous... So the companies now generally accept that smoking is dangerous (but put forward distracting arguments to suggest that epidemiology is not an exact science, so that figures for those killed by tobacco may be exaggerated); are equivocal about nicotine's addictiveness; and are still attempting to undermine the argument that passive smoking is dangerous.'

So according to a report released by The Lancet last month, tobacco giant Philip Morris went to elaborate lengths to secretly fund a German research facility to release such pseudo-scientific spoilers. It was also used to gather confidential experimental data to supplement a 'technical intelligence system' - an instant rebuttal unit of which Alistair Campbell would be proud. Over 800 such unpublished reports between 1981 and 1989 strongly indicated the toxicity of passively inhaled smoke. But the facility preferred to publish a study linking lung cancer to green tea!

The proposed ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has not found favour with Big Tobacco. They argue that self-regulation in pubs, clubs and other workplaces is sufficient. Socialists would not accept this argument about any other aspect of health and safety legislation. We would demand that the state intervenes. With 106,000 people in Britain dying each year from smoking - at least 1,000 of them through passive smoking according to the British Medical Association (BMA) - this product is the most lethal workplace hazard. For this reason I believe we should support - with important qualifications - the proposed restrictions.

I'll admit that I'm not a huge fan of smoking. I hate the way the smell clings to your clothes and dulls your taste buds when you eat. It's clearly a habit with few redeeming features - it's expensive, addictive and comes with health risks ranging from stained teeth and impotency to heart disease and cancer.

I'm also fairly intolerant when it comes to slow pedestrians, but I wouldn't support legislating against them (though maybe different lanes on the pavement is an idea...). Limiting smoking should not be about penalising individuals, but about ensuring a safer workplace. That's why the bar workers' union in Ireland, Mandate, supported the ban there. The BMA reckons that non-smokers who work in the smokiest bars (as I did for a time) are around 20 times more likely to get lung cancer than the average non-smoker.

The neoliberals crudely characterise smoking as a personal choice. But this is an addictive habit backed by huge lobbying might. The top five tobacco multinationals have annual revenues in excess of $100 billion. In the US alone they spend over $32 million a year to work on politicians. But public health campaigns and restrictions in industrialised countries have impacted on their sales. While 30 years ago 45 percent of adults in Britain smoked regularly, only one in four do now. The BMA points out that already 7,000 additional smokers have given up the habit in Ireland and lung cancer rates have declined six times faster in California than in US states without smoke free laws.

Of course New Labour likes nothing better than to moralise - particularly at the poor. And given a poll recording 80 percent backing for the ban, it probably sees this as an easy way to bolster support for the more draconian parts of its agenda, such as anti-social behaviour orders. And yet the proposed exemptions - bars that don't serve food and working men's clubs - are precisely the places frequented overwhelmingly by workers.

Yet people in deprived urban areas are the most likely to smoke and die. They live the most stressful lives and are therefore most likely to succumb - especially while young - to the relentless promotion of a highly addictive habit. The answer is not to hector or punish smokers. Imposing fines on workplaces that defy regulation can help, but it needs to be part of a much wider health campaign that provides free nicotine patches and cessation clinics throughout the country to help people to quit.

But it is also about ending the poverty, alienation and downright boredom that drive people to fags. And despite health secretary John Reid's supposed concern for single parents on 'sink estates', New Labour shows no sign of attempting anything so radical.