From: The Ottawa Citizen
By Ian Dowbiggin
Call it addition by subtraction. The battle against smoking would be closer to victory if our provincial governments ended their dependence on tobacco taxes and lawsuits against Big Tobacco.
Last month Prince Edward Island filed suit against tobacco companies to recoup health care costs going back to 1953, making it just the latest in a long list of Canadian provinces to do so.
P.E.I. knows its chances for a big payout are good. The industry looks like a cash-cow to provincial governments desperate for additional revenue.
Yet P.E.I.’s lawsuit is without merit. It feeds off the popular view that Canadians have been helpless victims of businesses which have hoodwinked them about the dangers of smoking. But the whole idea of holding the tobacco industry uniquely liable for the health consequences of smoking is a gross distortion of history.
Big Tobacco has had a lot of enablers, including our own provincial governments.
As anyone who was alive in the 1960s and ’70s will attest, it has long been common knowledge that there were significant health risks from smoking. As early as 1964 the U.S. Surgeon-General linked smoking and lung cancer.
This was followed by a succession of similar warnings from numerous national and international public health organizations. In 1968, terminally ill actor William Talman from the Perry Mason TV show filmed a widely broadcast commercial in which he blamed his lung cancer on a three-pack-a-day habit.
By the 1980s there was no excuse for anyone to be ignorant of the facts. Cigarette packages carried labels warning of the health risks of smoking. Advertising by tobacco companies in magazines, TV, and radio was outlawed. Airlines banned smoking on flights.
As evidence that the message was sinking in, Canadian smoking rates plummeted. As of 1987, 44 per cent of people who had started smoking had quit.
For many years, tobacco advertising and marketing were designed to keep Canadians consuming the industry’s products. But that’s what all advertisers do, including the fast food industry which pretends that obesity doesn’t exist, the automobile industry which ignores the thousands of deaths annually due to driving, and the beer companies whose ads with frolicking, scantily clad young women never mention the health-related costs due to alcohol.
Initially, too, tobacco companies disputed the public health research blaming smoking for cancer rates. But so did environmentalist icon Rachel Carson, who in her best-seller Silent Spring (published in 1962) and in the face of mounting evidence insisted cancer was caused by pesticides and herbicides, not smoking.
The American Medical Association accepted funding from the tobacco industry until 1978. Before that, countless physicians took industry money for appearing in cigarette ads.
In 1973 tennis star Billie Jean King wore Virginia Slim colours and sequins while beating Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes.” The horse racing industry and men’s and women’s tennis in Canada began accepting tobacco funding in 1980.
In 1991 the AIDS activist group ACT-UP began taking money from Philip Morris to fight AIDS and anti-gay bias.
The list goes on, but the institution with the biggest liability may be government itself.
The tobacco industry is right: governments have licensed and regulated its companies, taxed them and consumers, all the while aware of the risks associated with cigarette use. As the years have passed, governments on both sides of the border have become hooked on tobacco taxes and litigation settlements. Unable to put their own fiscal houses in order, they have been grateful for the financial cushion from their tobacco revenues.
When deficits mount, elected officials merely raise tobacco taxes. The result is that an (often poor) minority with addictions pays a bigger and bigger bill. And all too often tobacco tax revenue goes into general funds, not toward health-care costs and rarely to programs to wean smokers off their cigarettes.
Additionally, governments have taxed cigarettes so heavily that smuggling has become big business. The First Nations communities have made huge profits selling contraband cigarettes. But Canadians have to foot the bill in the form of greater expenses to fight organized crime.
Put another way, governments have been virtual shareholders in the tobacco industry for years. How serious do you think they really are about reducing cigarette use?
And if you think you’re personally blameless, check your next pension fund statement. You might be surprised to learn that you’ve invested for years in stock owned by a tobacco firm. New Brunswick’s pension fund managers have owned Imperial Tobacco stocks for years, even though the province is suing the same company.
No one’s denying the addictive quality of the nicotine found in cigarettes and other tobacco products. As Mark Twain once said, it’s easy to quit smoking: he did it time and time again.
Still, it’s a hard truth: anyone in this day and age suffering from tobacco-related illnesses is no more or less of a victim than an alcoholic or inveterate gambler. And I haven’t seen any signs that the provinces are taking Big Booze to court or cutting back their own addictions to “gaming” revenues.
Thus, the indignation of the P.E.I. government is highly selective and ignores a long trail of historical evidence. Like every provincial government, it shares complicity in the failure to end Canadians’ dependency on tobacco products.
Public health would be better served if governments limited their involvement to public education and got out of the tobacco business altogether. Even if P.E.I. wins a big settlement we’ll likely be no closer to a smoke-free country.
Why not leave nicotine reduction up to voluntary, non-profit organizations such as the Cancer Society and Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada?
Governments have been part of the problem for years. When will they become part of the solution?
Ian Dowbiggin teaches the history of health care at the University of Prince Edward Island.