By Frank Higgins
Where did Coca Cola get its name from? Earlier this century, the “soft” drink included an element of cocaine. In the last century you could buy over the counter a drink called laudanum, which contained opium. Tighter state control of drug distribution and consumption put a stop to such things. Even potent but harmless marijuana was outlawed
The great exception to the banning and regulation of dangerous addictive drugs was nicotine. To this day, it remains unregulated.
Nicotine comes in tobacco, together with tar and other noxious substances. As a result, tobacco, to whose nicotine untold millions are addicted, causes heart, lung and other diseases. It shortens even those lives it does not bring to a traumatic, painful, needless end.
By the 1940s, in Britain, lung cancer had reached epidemic proportions. Nobody could explain why. The British government set up an enquiry to investigate the cause of the epidemic. Was it caused by industrial chemicals? By the tar on roads? Their conclusion was that the phenomenal rise in cigarette smoking in recent decades was to blame. In the following years, scientific evidence accumulated, linking smoking to lung and throat cancer, and to heart disease.
In a system where dangerous drugs were regulated, the conclusion was plainly indicated: treat nicotine-bearing tobacco in the same way as other addictive dangerous drugs are treated. It is one of the great scandals of 20th century bourgeois society that nothing of the sort was done.
Cigarettes, bearing an addictive drug and other killer substances remained completely unregulated. It was not until the 70s that the tobacco companies were forced to print a “government health warning” on cigarette packets.
The tobacco companies have for many decades fought a successful war against any reguation that might cut into their profits. The list of their techniques adds up to a sobering portrait of where power lies in our democracy.
The cigarette companies conducted private investigations which, once more, proved that cigarettes cause lung cancer: they then suppressed them. These private scientific enquiries served to teach them the best way to fight the scientific evidence deployed in attempts to bind them by legislation. They paid scientists to quibble: was it an addictive drug or merely “habit-forming”? They bought members of US government scientific investigations.
When, in the 60s, decades after it was known for a certainty, the link between smoking and lung cancer became a matter of wide public concern and smoking — for the companies, profits — began to decline, they mounted an elaborate public deception. Filters on cigarettes, previously a rarity and associated with lady-like smoking, now became universal. This is the answer to the health threat. The filters will protect you. Don’t let the fuss-pots deprive you of your pleasure. Sales of cigarettes picked up again and climbed.
In fact, the careful laboratory machine tests which “proved” that filters made cigarettes safer were so remote from the effect of filters on human smokers — virtually nil effect — that it was sheer falsification. Filters were not about safer cigarettes, but about public relations.
In the USA the cigarette industry is economically as big as the car industry. It has the power to bribe politicians and exert vast political and media influence. What's good for the fag-makers is good for the USA — except for those who die early and in agony. In Britain, things are pretty similar. When television ads were banned, the tobacco barons overcame this control on advertising by sponsoring sporting events... which were televised!
More than 50 years after the link between cancer and smoking was scientifically established, the tobacco companies remain essentially uncurbed by the politicians.
In the USA it has fallen to the courts to act. In a number of cases brought by individuals, the tobacco companies have been found culpable and made financially responsible for health-damage inflicted by their product. An element in these decisions has been the exposure of the conspiracy by the tobacco giants to suppress the results of their own scientific research. Vast sums have been awarded against them. But they remain a tremendous force to be reckoned with: the story is not over yet.
First published in Socialist Organiser, July 1989.