This unfortunate state of affairs is very common in the "public health community" for two reasons. Firstly, since funding comes from the state to meet perceived health crises, there is an incentive to be hysterical. Secondly, fanaticism breeds fanaticism. When reasonable objectives have been achieved, reasonable people leave the movement. This leaves the fanatics to pursue more fanatical objectives which, in turn, attract new fanatics to the movement.
With life expectancy soaring, infectious diseases plummetting and people enjoying better health, working conditions and diets than ever before, you might expect the health lobby's wailing to subside somewhat. This has not happened, of course, least of all in tobacco control—a faction of public health which has won victory after victory for decades and yet only gets more anguished and hyperbolic. Take this comment about smoking from one Dr Seffrin who, according to the Independent, "leads the US national society dedicated to eliminating [!] cancer".
"It killed 100 million in the last century and we thought that was outrageous, but this will be the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world, bar none. It all could be avoided if we could prevent the terroristic tactics of the tobacco industry in marketing its products to children."
There are a number of things to be said about this statement. One might, for example, cite malaria, smallpox and bubonic plague as just three diseases which have been greater public health disasters than cigarette smoking, not least because they killed people at a much younger age and were not the result of taking a risky, but freely made, decision. One might also ask exactly in what ways the tobacco industry markets its products to children in 2012. Is this the "glitzy pack" argument? If so, does Dr Seffrin seriously believe that "the biggest public health disaster in the history of the world ... all could be avoided" by changing a red pack into a green pack?
But never mind all that. What is this stuff about terrorism? Even to a man who thinks he can eliminate cancer, that is a stupid thing to say. Alas, the fanatics are in too deep to understand why such a comment is risible and offensive. Let us remember that ASH (New Zealand) thought nothing of issuing this advert a few years ago...
This is what comes from spending years in the tobacco control bubble. One's sense of proportion goes out of the window. Flying an aeroplane full of innocent people into a building full of innocent people starts to seem commensurate with selling a legal product covered with health warnings which, if consumed many times a day for decades, increases the risk of developing a potentially deadly disease in old age. What next? Are they going to compare the tobacco industry with paedophiles? Oh no, they already did that...
I have described this phenomenon of escalating hyperbole as "bullshit inflation" (one of the leading causes of "bullshit fatigue"). You can expect to hear a lot of it this week because yet another anti-smoking conference is taking place. This time it's in South Korea ("Join tobacco control—See the world!"). It's the Fifth session of the Conference of the Parties to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control which means that it has some legislative muscle (you can read the agenda here). It kicked off with Margaret Chan, director general of the WHO, coming up with another silly simile...
Tobacco use is the epidemiological equivalent of a drive-by shooting – it hurts the innocent bystanders, as well as those held captive by an addiction that damages their health.
Chan played to the gallery by using military metaphors about the tobacco industry. "This is how we hem in the enemy," she said. "It is a ruthless industry that quite literally cannot afford to lose. It behaves like a corrosive substance that can eat and slip through any cracks or fissures in the armour of our defences." She was using similar rhetoric earlier in the year when she said: "We have an enemy, a ruthless and devious enemy, to unite us... The enemy, the tobacco industry, has changed its face and its tactics. The wolf is no longer in sheep's clothing, and its teeth are bared." Etc., etc.
This kind of banter is all well and good for the average street preacher, but it's a little sad to see the head of a once-distinguished UN body resort to tub-thumping. It really is reminiscent of the rants against the 'liquor trust' which prohibitionists like Richmond P. Hobson delivered in the early part of the twentieth century. I guess it's more comforting to think that you're at war with an industry than it is to admit you're demonising, impoverishing and harassing hundreds of millions of ordinary people who happen to enjoy tobacco. Better to imagine yourself at war with terrorists and drive-by shooters.
I can see the appeal of the us-versus-them conceit. If you're a government pencil-pusher it must feel very exciting to think you're at war. I don't care if people want to talk like this, I just don't think we should have to pay for it with our taxes (and, as Dick Puddlecote recently reported, delegates at this WHO meeting are discussing levying an international tax on tobacco to fund—guess WHO?) And yet, Chan constantly talks about the anti-tobacco industry as if it were "civil society". For example...
Members of civil society,
We need you, now more than ever.
Experience has shown that, when government political resolve falters or weakens under industry pressure, coalitions of civil society can take up the slack and carry the day. We need this kind of outcry, this kind of rage.
I'm all in favour of civil society and voluntary action. All I ask is that it be genuinely voluntary. Get rid of the taxpayer funding for these groups and let's see how many of these people are prepared to "take up the slack" and attend week long conferences in South Korea.
Here's an interesting fact about these 'Conference of the Parties (COP)' shindigs. It won't surprise you to hear that the tobacco industry is not invited to participate, but they are apparently not even allowed to observe proceedings from the spectator's gallery. These are—I say again—publicly funded conferences. Refusing to allow the relevant industry to even hear what is being said strikes me as peculiarly paranoid—as if tobacco execs are so powerful that they can transmit pro-tobacco messages by just being in the same room.
Predictably enough, the (taxpayer funded) anti-booze brigade wants the alcohol industry excluded from (taxpayer funded) discussions about alcohol.
Eurocare strongly recommended exclusion of the alcohol industry as a stakeholder, similarly as it is being done with the tobacco industry.
Of course prohibitionists want their "enemy" excluded from the discussion. If they let their opponents speak, they might undermine their paper-thin arguments. But it gets worse. As if it wasn't crazy enough not to allow the industry to see what goes on in these meetings, the fanatics have now banned Interpol (yes, that Interpol) from attending. Why? Because the tobacco company Philip Morris recently gave Interpol 15 million euros "to support the agency’s global initiative to combat trans-border crime involving illicit goods, including tobacco products".
This is madness. Is there any organisation these maniacs do not suspect are 'front groups' for Big Backy? The real issue here is not allowing the industry—or Interpol—to engage, it is that no opposing views are allowed whatsoever. I don't imagine that the industry necessarily represents the views of its customers, but they represent them better than the people who hate the customers, hate the industry and hate the product. Ideally, I'd like to see the tobacco control "community" invite smokers to their conferences and ask them how they feel about higher taxes and outdoor smoking bans, but they never do. I can't think why.
The result of excluding everybody except fellow fanatics is that you end up with retarded and delusional policies which only make sense at two in the morning when they are being discussed by monomaniacs in the hotel bar. It seems obvious, for example, that the tobacco industry could make common cause with the anti-tobacco industry—not to mention Interpol—on the issue of counterfeit cigarettes where both parties stand to lose. No dice, say the anti-smokers. Instead, we get a pompous announcement of monumental hubris...
The Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products
"The elimination of all forms of illicit trade in tobacco products, including smuggling and illegal manufacturing, is an essential component of tobacco control," says Ambassador Ricardo Varela, President of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the WHO FCTC.
If winning an unwinnable war is an essential part of your plan, it's time to rethink the plan. The tragedy is that it really is essential to their plan. It won't happen—prohibition never works—but they won't let anyone into the circle of trust to bring them to their senses.
To read about what the WHO should be talking about this week—if the 'H' in it still meant anything—read Clive Bates' open letter to COP-5.
Reading the full text of Chan's speech, it looks like the knives are out for snus and e-cigarettes:
You have before you state-of-the art reports on recommended responses to smokeless tobacco products and electronic nicotine delivery systems. Again, industry is seeping through the cracks.
Sounds like these "state-of-the-art reports" have been written by the usual quit-or-die merchants.