The Unfair $23 Billion Tobacco Verdict: Time For Smokers to Stop Playing Dumb
By Sandip Roy
I do not smoke, never have, but one of the first accessories I bought when I moved into my apartment in Kolkata were ashtrays.
In India I am used to being in a group where I am the only person not smoking. Without ash trays in the house a social life seemed impossible. I have hung out with friends in a bar where everyone is lighting up under a No Smoking sign. No one gives me a hard time for being “uncool” and not smoking but I have emerged with my eyes stinging and my clothes reeking of second-hand smoke.
It’s not pleasurable. I am not a fan of smoking by any means. I used to piously refuse to bring back the duty free allowance of cigarette cartons for smoking friends and relatives whenever I went abroad.
But cribbing about second-hand smoke feels like some kind of first world affectation here, though even the Indian Supreme Court has taken note of it.
However even I had to balk when I read that a jury in Florida has awarded $23 billion to the family of a smoker who died of lung cancer in 1996. Cynthia Robinson sued RJ Reynolds, the company that brings us Winston, Camel and Pall Mall, arguing that the company concealed the dangers of smoking that led to the death of her husband, Michael Johnson. He smoked between one and three packs a day for more than 20 years and died of lung cancer.
“He couldn’t quit. He was smoking the day he died,” her lawyer told Reuters.
It’s a tragic story. But the catch is Johnson died at the age of 36. So for much of his life he must have known full well the dangers of smoking. From 1966, packets in the US warned smoking may be hazardous to health. From 1970 it became a more definitive “The Surgeon General Has Determined that Cigarette Smoking is Dangerous to Your Health”. That Johnson could not quit his addiction is a different matter. But the verdict is clearly less about Johnson’s tragedy as it is about teaching cigarette companies a lesson for peddling a vice. Last August another jury in Florida awarded damages of $37.5 million to the family of another smoker who died of lung cancer at the age of 38.
We do not have to shed tears of sympathy for tobacco companies who have fought long and hard against health advisories linking tobacco smoking to diseases like lung cancer. They have played plenty of dirty games to keep the consumer as deluded as possible for a long time.
In 1953, the CEOs of the major tobacco companies met secretly in New York City and paid to publish a “Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers” in 448 newspapers on January 4, 1954 claiming that an “interest in people’s health” was “paramount to every other consideration in our business.” It was pure baloney meant to literally blow smoke in the eyes of the public. In the 1970s an internal memo at R J Reynolds showed the company banked on the fact that eighteen-year-olds feel immortal and might even see defying a warning label as an act of daring.
But the duplicity and charades of tobacco giants does not mean the rest of us are just unwitting lambs who have been led to the slaughter.
In this day and age it is impossible to say that someone who is smoking is unaware of the damage they are doing to their lungs.
The no smoking zone has been ever increasing shepherding smokers into little ghettos. We can roll our eyes at the heavy-handed nanny state measures countries like India take to hammer home the anti-smoking message. From the gory graphic illustrations of diseased organs on cigarette packs to the annoying anti-smoking advisories that pop up on film screens every time someone lights up – we are bombarded by anti-smoking messages all the time. It reaches farcical levels when a Woody Allen refuses to allow Blue Jasmine to screen in India with the No Smoking messages stuck on screen like Band Aids.
We can argue about whether this preachy finger-wagging messaging is effective at all. But we cannot pretend we have not seen it. There is really no two ways to interpret a message as bald as Smoking Kills especially when it’s splayed across 40 percent of the front of the packet.
Our government, however, has a love-hate relationship with tobacco. That’s one tax the government never has any qualms about raising. It’s that rare creature – a legal vice and therefore it’s not politically correct to complain about taxing it.
On the day he assumed office at Health Minister, Dr. Harsh Vardhan demanded higher taxes on tobacco products. Arun Jaitley said they did not want to burden the common man in his budget. So duties on day-to-day items remained largely the same. Some things such as smaller LED/LCD TVs, RO based water purifiers, soaps and laptops actually became cheaper. But the excise duty on cigarettes went up. He did exempt bidis against Dr. Harsh Vardhan’s wishes.
The Daily Mail says bidis account for 85 percent of tobacco smoked in India. While it’s mostly the poor who smoke bidis, it does not mean they have less health damage. The economic burden of tobacco related illnesses is about one lakh crore rupees or 1.04 percent of the GDP.
While one arm of the government tells us not to smoke, another arm considers tobacco as the goose that lays its golden eggs. When the West Bengal government was grappling with the fallout of the Saradha chit fund scam, Mamata Banerjee decided to increase the tax on cigarettes by 10 percent to help compensate some of the desperate investors.
In inimitable Mamata style she told the state’s smokers to do their bit to help their brothers and sisters. “It wouldn’t harm if you smoke some more. Do that and we will be able to collect the required amount quickly.”
Sometimes it feels like the government is more interested in taxing tobacco rather than eliminating tobacco use.
Tobacco companies have done their utmost to glamourize smoking. There is a sexiness that is associated with that dangling cigarette or that perfect ring of smoke. That appeal still remains. The number of cigarette smokers in India have risen from 74.5 million in 1980 to 110.2 million in 2012. India is now home to the second highest number of women smokers even as smoking prevalence among men has gone down. The quit rate in India is low at less than 20 percent.
This is a problem, no ifs and butts about it.
But to stub out that cigarette we cannot just raise the excise duty on it or sue for tobacco companies for millions. Somewhere along the line we also need to look in the mirror. Personal choice must count for something.
Source: New America Media