Tobacco and smoking have a number of negative effects:
Tobacco smoking kills
Tobacco exacerbates poverty
Tobacco contributes to world hunger by diverting prime land away from food production
Tobacco production damages the environment
Tobacco reduces economic productivity
While the Tobacco industry may employ people, this can be considered an example of wasted labor, capital and resources.
The World Health Organization has noted that policy measures such as complete bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and its sponsorship do decrease tobacco use. However, the tobacco industry uses its enormous resources to derail or weaken laws and agreements in various countries and regions.
It is worth citing the WHO again for a summary of how tobacco exacerbates poverty:
John Madeley also notes in his book, Big Business Poor People (Zed Books, 1999), that heavy advertising of tobacco by Transnational Corporations (TNCs) can convince the poor to smoke more, and to use money they might have spent on food or health care, to buy cigarettes instead.
Madeley also describes in detail other impacts on land from tobacco use:
The land that has been destroyed or degraded to grow tobacco has affects on nearby farms. As forests, for example, are cleared to make way for tobacco plantations, then the soil protection it provides is lost and is more likely to be washed away in heavy rains. This can lead to soil degradation and failing yields.
A lot of wood is also needed to cure tobacco leaves.
Tobacco uses up more water, and has more pesticides applied to it, further affecting water supplies. These water supplies are further depleted by the tobacco industry recommending the planting of quick growing, but water-thirsty eucalyptus trees.
Child labor is often needed in tobacco farms.
For more detail, refer to Big Business Poor Peoples; The Impact of Transnational Corporations on the World’s Poor, by John Madeley, (Zed Books, 1999) ch. 4.
A report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids11 says that from a socioeconomic and environmental perspective, there is little benefit in tobacco growing12, and that While a few large-scale tobacco growers have prospered, the vast majority of tobacco growers in the Global South barely eke out a living toiling for the companies. Furthermore, the cigarette companies continue to downplay or ignore the many serious economic and environmental costs associated with tobacco cultivation, such as chronic indebtedness among tobacco farmers (usually to the companies themselves), serious environmental destruction caused by tobacco farming, and pesticide-related health problems for farmers and their families.
The world’s first global health treaty—the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control13 (summary14), adopted May 2003—became international law in February 2005.
Amongst other things, the treaty requires countries to
Impose restrictions on tobacco advertising, sponsorship and promotion;
Establish new packaging and labeling of tobacco products (e.g. ban misleading descriptions such as low tar and lights;)
Establish clean indoor air controls; and
Strengthen legislation to clamp down on tobacco smuggling.
Treaty adopted despite heavy lobbying by big tobacco
This treaty was adopted despite a sustained campaign by the tobacco lobby via certain governments to dilute it—particularly the United States, Germany and Japan, as the British Medical Journal (BMJ) reported (Tobacco Lobby Threatens to Derail Global Antismoking Treaty, February 12, 2005, Volume 330, p. 325.)
Furthermore, pressure from the industry has not let up … the United States proposed a clear reference to global trade rules potentially allowing companies and governments to attack the legally binding health treaty under trade laws, even though the … treaty gives governments the right to prioritize health over trade issues.
As the BMJ also noted, poor countries are now more vulnerable to the powerful tobacco industry and need support in implementing tough anti-tobacco measures.
In recent years, in wealthy countries, attempts have been made to introduce smoke-free legislation. In California for example, smoke-free laws were introduced in July 1998. As the Californian Medical Association’s president, Dr. Robert Hertza commented, California’s lung cancer rates have fallen six times faster than in US states without smoke-free laws. (Smoke-free workplaces would hit tobacco profits, BMJ, Vol. 330, p.325) This illustrates the potential of treaties such as this global tobacco treaty to save lives of millions.
WHO MPOWERing countries with effective policies
Advertising bans work; self-regulation does not
Tobacco taxes; one of the most effective measures to reduce smoking
Progress with more countries adopting anti-tobacco measures
The tobacco companies have tried various ways to minimize damage impact to their sales and reputation. They have sought to expand markets in other areas, especially the developing world as they find the industrialized nations are increasingly hostile to their industry. Attempts at regulation are fought with various public relations attempts, and corruption.
Expanding into Developing Nations Markets
In recent years, the damage caused to a person’s health by tobacco consumption has been confirmed, attracted particular scrutiny at tobacco firms because they knew this for years, but attempted to hide their research.
Some countries, such as the US have had the resources and political will to tackle the large tobacco corporations. However, combined with the resulting smaller and tougher markets in the rich countries, multinational tobacco firms have intensified their efforts in other regions of world such as Asia, to continue growing and selling cigarettes, as well as expanding advertising (to create demand, not meet). And they have been successful, too. 84% of the estimated 1.3 billion smokers live in developing and transitional economy countries as the WHO has noted.
Targeting Children, Teenagers and Women
Public Relations and WHO-Discrediting Campaigns
The tobacco industry has gone to extraordinary levels to discredit the World Health Organisation and others that are fighting tobacco issues29, a WHO report charges.
A Committee of Experts had been set up in October 1999 to inquire into the nature and extent of undue influence which the tobacco industry had exercised over UN organisations.
This Committee produced the report that found that the tobacco industry regarded the World Health Organization as one of their leading enemies, and that the industry had a planned strategy to contain, neutralise, reorient WHO’s tobacco control initiatives. They added that the tobacco industry documents show that they carried out their plan by:
Staging events to divert attention from the public health issues raised by tobacco use;
Attempting to reduce budgets for the scientific and policy activities carried out by WHO;
Pitting other UN agencies against WHO;
Seeking to convince developing countries that WHO’s tobacco control program was a First World agenda carried out at the expense of the developing world;
Distorting the results of important scientific studies on tobacco;
Discrediting the WHO as an institution.
PAHO, the Pan American Health Organization (a regional office for the Americas for the WHO) issued a report titled Profits over People31 (17 December 2002). Looking at the Latin American and Caribbean countries and information from Philip Morris and British American Tobacco, the report details how the tobacco companies:
Were intensely competitive but collaborated in campaigns against common threats to the industry
Hired scientists throughout the region to misrepresent the science linking secondhand smoke to serious diseases, while cloaking in secrecy any connection of these scientists with the tobacco industry;
Designed youth smoking prevention campaigns and programs primarily as public relations exercises aimed at deterring meaningful regulation of tobacco marketing;
Had detailed knowledge of smuggling networks and markets and actively sought to increase their share of the illegal market by structuring marketing campaigns and distribution routes around it; and
Enjoyed access to key government officials and succeeded in weakening or killing tobacco control legislation in a number of countries.
They also added that these tactics and strategies are not unique to the Americas region.
Reports such as those mentioned above show that there is a lot of political maneuvering by large tobacco companies to lower prices, to increase sales, etc. In addition, the poor and small farmers are the ones most affected by the impacts of tobacco companies. The hard cash earned from this foreign investment is offset by the costs in social and public health and the environment. In effect, profits are privatized; costs are socialized.
While the tobacco industry no doubt provides jobs for many people around the world, the total negative effects of the industry and of smoking tobacco suggests that this is wasted wealth and wasted labor.
Talented scientists and business people currently employed by this industry could potentially be working in other areas contributing to society in a more positive way, while agricultural workers could potentially be producing less damaging products, for example.
(Wasted wealth38 and wasted labor39 and wasted resources are discussed in more depth later in this site’s section on consumption and consumerism.)
Note that this does not have to be an authoritarian ban, as free choice is still a treasured value. Instead:
True costing of tobacco (factoring in health, environment and social costs, as well as additional economic costs that might be externalized) would increase the cost of tobacco products to a higher and more realistic value.
That could help pay for dealing with the various damages. It may potentially deter those whose free choice has been influenced by the numerous public relations, advertising and propaganda of the tobacco industry. (Some countries such as the UK do add taxes onto cigarettes, but largely to only cover health costs.)
Enormous PR related resources would be freed up for other needs, such as helping the tobacco industry clean up, diversifying into other areas, etc.
Heavily-burdened health services would additionally free up, thus leading to a potentially snow-balling series of positive effects.
A lot of this is perhaps wishful thinking, as the tobacco industry would lose out a lot, and no industry would like that. Their size, power and thus influence, means that they will (and have) hit back in many ways to dilute effective action.
It is often argued by those who prefer to smoke and not see more and more restrictions put in place that it is their free choice to smoke. Some will add that they do not smoke in front of children, etc and thus sound responsible.
Yet, on the one hand how free a choice is it to decide to smoke? Advertising, peer pressure, modern culture, stress all combine to give reasons for people to smoke.
Furthermore, it may seem like a free choice to only harm oneself when deciding to smoke, but second hand smoking also kills.
And perhaps more remote than that is people half way around the world may be going hungry because land that could have been growing and sustaining local people is now diverted into environmentally damaging and wasteful tobacco production.
If one does not wish to give up smoking because it is considered free choice, how about quitting smoking so others may have a choice?