CRITICAL CONSUMER Pat Sidley
HOLLAND is a country which is seen, not least by its own residents, as being inhabited by rational people who discuss issues endlessly in forums before making decisions.
It is this peculiar aspect of Dutch society which has been targeted by the tobacco industry in its international defence of unprecedented criticism.
“Everything is open to discussion,” says the large type in a full colour advertisement in a Dutch paper which does not usually carry colour. The advert then suggests that smokers and non-smokers talk to each other. An open-air advertising campaign cashes in on the perception that the Dutch are, environmentally speaking, very politically correct. Its main line says: “We use recycled copying paper” and then suggets this arrangement was arrived at by discussion — and that the issue of smoking should also be discussed openly.
The tobacco industry is fighting back with a multi-million dollar campaign to reduce the damage to itself after being caught, metaphorically speaking, with its pants down. Evidence came to light in the United States which indicates that tobacco companies genetically engineered tobacco plants with more nicotine. In addition, evidence was presented that the companies knew nicotine to be addictive before they were forced to admit knowing this. And documents in the possession of British newspapers indicate that in the United Kingdom tobacco companies were discussing the possibility of cheating on nicotine and tar tables introduced to help consumers choose safer brands of cigarettes.
The US attorney general suggested that tobacco company executives may be charged with perjuring themselves. In the UK newspaper disclosures leave little doubt that British tobacco executives were willing to do anything to keep the industry from flagging.
In Los Angeles, and in other major cities across the world, the industry bought up to three pages in one edition of prestige newspapers to put its view across. Much of the emphasis of the campaign is on suggesting that the US government, which once banned alcohol, will now ban cigarettes — and perhaps hamburgers next.
The three pages in the Los Angeles Times, under the legend “In any controversy, Facts Must Matter”, used the space to trash statistics, previous studies, the language journalists use.
It debunks the guarded use of language that journalists use to indicate some doubt. Journalists tend to become tentative when they are dealing with huge companies with vast resources. They avoid writing what they believe to be true — that tobacco smoking is dangerous as it harms one’s health and may result in death.
Many of these articles and advertisements use the same arguments which South African consumers are familiar with: labourers on tobacco farms could lose their jobs if nobody smokes; countries whose GDP is largely dependent on income — and tax — from the tobacco industry will be adversely affected; higher taxes will cause the good people of Canada, the United Kingdom to “smuggle” in cheaper brands from neighbouring countries. And so it goes on.
The great tobacco debate has also surfaced in such hallowed journals as the British Medical Journal. An article defending the industry provoked a rush of learned letters to the journal from various experts, most of them academics.
Consumers who feel the anti-smoking lobby is becoming authoritarian, should stop to question the facts behind — and messages in — the tobacco industry’s campaigns.
The industry has seemingly unlimited resources to defend cigarette smoking and promote its interests while debunking the findings of other research.
It has much to gain by this, and everything to lose by not doing it.
This cannot be said for the anti-smoking lobby. It consists of anti-smoking activists, research scientists and some government agencies. They have one thing in common: they do not have profit as their motive — unlike the tobacco industry.