23 February 2007

Beware Big Tobacco's friendly fire

Expect volleys of arguments about smokers' rights and the constructive role of the tobacco industry.


Get ready for a barrage of spin. When the Health ministry's proposals for tougher anti-smoking legislation go for public comment in a few weeks, they'll trigger volleys of huffy, emotional keening about smokers' rights and the constructive role of the tobacco industry. But the facts about passive smoking speak for themselves, with startling clarity. Want some kryptonite to cripple the rhetoric? Try the words, “Helena, Montana”.

If you thought the men in camouflage suits doing the briefings on the war in Iraq had it tough justifying their actions, consider Big Tobacco trying to refute the evidence of passive smoking as a health risk. It really is the equivalent of trying to explain away bombing one of your own tanks. Like the Pentagon, Big Tobacco doesn't call it collateral damage outside their boardrooms, but the hucksters at Rembrandt, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris, RJ Reynolds and elsewhere have another solution.

Smokescreen around the issue of passive smoke
They have some of the best spin doctors around to cast a - forgive us - smokescreen around the issue of passive smoke. Go to any Big Tobacco website and you'll come across material that “puts into context” moves to curb the risks faced to non-smokers. This includes material about how much the tobacco business generates in excise and taxes, how many farmers for which it provides a livelihood and so on.

This is rather like saying, “We can't possibly do anything about the sale of illegal guns, because it would put the gunrunners out of business”. In a sense, it's understandable: when you hold a morally indefensible position and have vested interests, you really have little option but to go on the offensive, even if many people regard it as exactly that - offensive.

So what about the new laws? Briefly:

  • Parliament will also be asked to increase the maximum fine for an employer or owner who allows smoking in a public place from the current R200 to R10 000.
  • The ban on smoking in public places be extended to the area immediately outside the entrance to a building, to protect non-smokers from having to negotiate a cloud of smoke.
  • Under-18s would also be excluded from designated smoking areas, such as the lighting-up sections of restaurants.
  • Vending machines would be banned.
  • Cigarette packs will also carry pictorial warnings, an approach successfully pioneered in Canada: expect to see pictures of diseased lungs and gums, or the hole left when a throat cancer victim’s voice box has been removed.
  • The size of health warnings on tobacco packaging would increase from the current less than 20 percent to half the total surface area of a packet.

No word yet on whether kids in cars will be protected from parents who light up while driving - something you see on the roads daily.

Smoking ban halves heart attacks
So what exactly is Helena, Montana? It’s a little town in the US where the rate of heart attacks dropped by half last summer after a ban on indoor smoking was voted in.

The doctors who monitored health in the town said the drop in heart attacks indicates an improvement in health from the moment tobacco smoke is removed – for smokers and non-smokers alike.

Apart from causing lung cancer, smoking is a potent trigger of heart attacks and quickly increases the risk by raising blood pressure and increasing the tendency of blood to make clots. The American Heart Association estimates that about 35 000 non-smokers die each year from the effects of secondhand smoke on the heart.

Helena’s broad smoking ban was adopted by voters last June and lasted six months, until enforcing it was suspended due to a legal challenge. Dr Richard Sargent, who was involved in monitoring the effects of the study, said it “led to an immediate and dramatic decline in the number of heart attacks we saw”.

Heart attacks double on lifting of smoking ban
Heart attack rates spiralled back up to their usual level after smoking was again permitted in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, casinos and other public places in December.

Researchers, usually a sober lot, are enthusiastic about the results of the study, and believe it may help other cities impose bans on smoking in public places.

New York State last month introduced sweeping bans on public smoking after a protracted and heated debate.

Even though Helena is a small town of around 26 000 people, the dramatic decline in heart attacks is worth noting. Dr Richard Pasternak, director of preventive cardiology at Massachusetts General Hospital, was quoted as saying, “It just takes one cigarette to make a vulnerable plaque rupture," triggering a heart attack.

The sting in the tail? While the smoking ban in Helena cut heart attacks among non-smokers by a half, the number of heart attacks among smokers themselves dropped by three-quarters. It’s not a statistic you’ll hear Big Tobacco’s generals going on about when they “contextualise” South Africa’s proposed legislation on tobacco products. – (William Smook)


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