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Morality lost in cloud of smoke

By Jane Rankin-Reid - posted Tuesday, 6 August 2013

It is perhaps unsurprising that Kevin Rudd is "disgusted" by smoking. The Prime Minister's revulsions over artworks, people-smuggling and now nicotine addiction have become an integral part of his political script, rationalising cultural censorship, his boatpeople policy, and now, newly announced tax increases on cigarettes, without any sign of moral pause.

The paradox of the federal government vilifying smokers while profiting from their addiction is hardly new. The unpopular King James I's Counterblaste, was a 17th-century royal outburst on the evils of smoking. But under his reign, the king wrested the right to tax tobacco from English physicians who'd initially controlled the distribution of the demon weed, so as to increase taxation by 4000 per cent. Hypocrisy has always surrounded the control of tobacco.

Adolf Hitler also hated smoking with a passion. Posters showing smokers' heads being crushed by Nazi jackboots were commonplace. Yet Germany's per capita tobacco consumption increased between 1932 and 1938 from 570 to 900 cigarettes annually, making it the world's largest tobacco importer throughout the war, funding up to 12 per cent of the Third Reich's wartime revenue.


What has changed? In Australia close to two decades of socially engineered anti-smoking "health" campaigns have conditioned citizens to be intolerant of smokers. We have accepted the apparent benefits of high taxes derived from smokers' ongoing dependence on tobacco. But if our governments are sincere in their drive to eliminate smoking, surely they'd have figured out an alternative revenue stream to the taxation collected from nicotine addicts?

Sadly, there are all too evident similarities between the government's commercially sponsored lack of interest in regulating poker machine technology and its paucity of scrutiny of cigarettes' ingredients.

Cigarettes are the only consumer product invented purely to capture permanent public usage through chemically managed addictive ingredients. In the past decade, US smokers became unwitting consumers of genetically modified Brazilian tobacco that contains up to 50 per cent higher levels of nicotine. In mid 2009, US President Barack Obama finally signed legislation giving the FDA full regulatory powers over cigarettes' ingredients. This should have made headlines throughout the world, but the epic victory in the protection of American smokers passed with little comment. Why?

Unlike Clairol or Kellogg's, tobacco companies are still not legally required to print their complete menu of contents on their packaging. Why has this institutional resistance to legislating the declaration of cigarettes' contents been allowed to continue?

US legal philosopher and author Martha Nussbaum believes that inciting collective acts of revulsion is unhealthy in a free society. "When people express disgust about a group whom they take to be a source of social decay, citing moral grounds, there is often something much uglier going on," she says.

One of the evident flaws in the anti-smoking campaign is its apparent lack of empathy for the marginalised, nicotine-addicted members of our society. Anti-smoking is essentially a middle-class preoccupation. Withholding vital information about cigarettes' ingredients, on one hand, leaves consumers' basic consumer rights unmet, while charging like a wounded bull for over-the-counter quit smoking products strands many low-income smokers from being able to afford to quit.


Most quitting smokers need far more costly assistance than a chat with their friendly neighbourhood chemist or a helpline.

Anti-smoking campaigners complain about the effects of smoking on others but have yet to express tangible concern for less fortunate smoking members of our society. Lonely, single, low-income mums, returned soldiers, uptight writers, prisoners, the unemployed and many others are being marginalised in a state-sponsored abhorrence of smokers.

In 2008, American academic Steven Pinker wrote:

(A) wave of amoralisation has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Morality, so that as old behaviours are taken out of the moralised column, new ones are added to it.

Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battle grounds, including disposable (nappies), IQ tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer.

Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonising about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has travelled from farm to plate.

Many of these moralisations, like the assault on smoking, may be understood as practical tactics to reduce some recently identified harm. But whether an activity switches our mental switches to the "moral" setting isn't just a matter of how much harm it does.

We don't show contempt for the man who fails to change the batteries on his smoke alarms or takes his family on driving vacations, both of which multiply the risk they will die in an accident.

Driving a gas-guzzling Hummer is reprehensible, but driving a gas-guzzling Volvo is not; eating a Big Mac is unconscionable, but not imported cheese or creme brulee. The reason for these double standards is obvious; people tend to align their moralisations with their own lifestyle.

As a smoker, I want to believe that Rudd's anti-smoking attack has my best interests at heart, but the evidence is yet to stack up on my side of the ashtray. I want to hear that Big Tobacco is the No 1 enemy, not smokers. Smokers are now so vilified that our health is the least affordable luxury on the anti-smoking campaign's agenda. Yet as long as I smoke, I'll continue to believe that when smokers' welfare and consumer rights are addressed as generously as non-smokers' passive-smoking safety concerns, the anti-smoking campaign will at last attain the necessary level of moral certainty required to meet the true needs of 21st-century nicotine addicts.

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About the Author

Jane Rankin-Reid is a former Mercury Sunday Tasmanian columnist, now a Principal Correspondent at Tehelka, India. Her most recent public appearance was with the Hobart Shouting Choir roaring the Australian national anthem at the Hobart Comedy Festival's gala evening at the Theatre Royal.

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