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Sep 05

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Big Tobacco Targets the Young and the Poor

By William A. Collins

Hapless smokers,
Still remain;
For villains they
Are just fair game.

Toward the end of the Richard Nixon era, there was a popular four-panel political cartoon. It showed the three familiar monkeys with their hands placed to depict “See no evil,” “Hear no evil,” and “Speak no evil.” The fourth panel was simply a picture of Nixon with the caption, “Evil.”

Of course “Tricky Dick” left us long ago, but many in the public health game consider him reincarnated in the tobacco industry. It’s hard to conjure up a business with less redeeming social value.

(kerolic / Flickr)

Before dismissing that assertion as biased or unfair, please consider the following: The industry is now marketing nicotine-laced candy to get children started on the habit. These products are sold as Camel Orbs, Sticks, or Strips. They come flavored with cinnamon or mint and are supposedly meant only for adult consumption. But kids are less resistant to this kind of marketing because they, more so than adults, aren’t so sure tobacco is dangerous.

Taking further aim at the young, Big Tobacco also runs a remarkably successful campaign to promote smoking in movies, especially those targeting youth. There’s no law against it.

Canada, bless its heart, has taken more direct action to defend its kids. Parliament outlawed the sale of flavored cigarettes, either foreign or domestic, that might appeal to children. Uh-oh. That restriction on “foreign” smokes aroused the ire of 14 cigarette-selling countries, including the United States. “You can’t do that!” they said. “The law violates World Trade Organization rules.” Apparently, trade is more important than human health.

Half a century ago, 45 percent of Americans said they were smokers. After a steep decline, only one out of five Americans smoke today, but tobacco remains the top cause of preventable deaths in this country. The national anti-smoking movement, despite its many victories, hasn’t let up its pressure. As a result, the government has mandated that cigarette packs soon display disgusting photos of various body parts consumed by smoking-related cancers. No one is sure how effective these not-so-genteel pictures will be in this country, but at the least they should encourage users not to let friends get a look at their containers.

Would that the rest of the world were as tuned in to the risks of smoking. Obviously many countries are not, and the industry sees great hope for continued growth in Asia, Africa, and the rest of the developing world.

And it’s not just China, the world’s leading tobacco market with 350 million smokers. New studies have found swelling hordes of customers in Thailand and Bangladesh. A large percentage of these smokers are women, lured by flavored cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, and feminine packaging. How sweet. Tellingly, the results of this research were published in a “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” from the Centers for Disease Control. Subscribe now.

So don’t get the idea that the tobacco industry has been vanquished. It has merely regrouped, spending billions on specialized advertising, lawyers, new products, scientists, lobbyists, and bribes. Where there’s an evil buck to be made, mankind will relentlessly track it down.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut. http://otherwords.org

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