Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it would spend US$600 million (S$770 million) over five years to educate the public about the dangers of tobacco use. But Professor Robert Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford University and the author of a forthcoming blockbuster entitled Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition, argues that, to use education as one’s only weapon against a highly addictive and often lethal drug is unpardonably insufficient.
“Tobacco control policy,” Prof Proctor says, “too often centres on educating the public, when it should be focused on fixing or eliminating the product.”
He points out that we do not just educate parents to keep toys painted with lead-based paints away from their children’s mouths; we ban the use of lead-based paint. Similarly, when thalidomide was found to cause major birth defects, we did not just educate women to avoid using the drug when pregnant.
MAKE THEM LESS ADDICTIVE
Prof Proctor calls on the FDA to use its new powers to regulate the contents of cigarette smoke to do two things. First, because cigarettes are designed to create and maintain addiction, the FDA should limit the amount of nicotine that they contain to a level at which they would cease to be addictive. Smokers who want to quit would then find it easier to do so.
Second, the FDA should bear history in mind. The first smokers did not inhale tobacco smoke; that became possible only in the 19th century, when a new way of curing tobacco made the smoke less alkaline.
That tragic discovery is already responsible for about 150 million deaths, with many times that toll still to come, unless something drastic is done.
The FDA should, therefore, require that cigarette smoke be more alkaline, which would make it less easily inhaled and so make it harder for cigarette smoke to reach the lungs.
Much of Prof Proctor’s book, which will be published in January, is based on a vast archive of tobacco-industry documents, released during litigation. More than 70 million pages of industry documents are now available online.
The documents show that, as early as the 1940s, the industry had evidence suggesting that smoking causes cancer.
In 1953, however, a meeting of the chief executives of major American tobacco companies took a joint decision to deny that cigarettes are harmful.
Moreover, once the scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer became public, the industry tried to create the impression that the science was inconclusive, in much the same way that those who deny that human activities are causing climate change deliberately distort the science today.
DEADLIER THAN RECREATIONAL DRUGS
As Prof Proctor says, cigarettes, not guns or bombs, are the deadliest artefacts in the history of civilisation. If we want to save lives and improve health, nothing else that is readily achievable would be as effective as an international ban on the sale of cigarettes.
But that may well be a false comparison. After all, many smokers would actually like to see cigarettes banned because, like Mr Obama, they want to quit.
Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His books include Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, and The Life You Can Save.