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The right to health more important than right to smoke

mental-health-disorder-and-tobacco-use-1Last updated: May 9, 2010

Source: The Age

WHEN the federal government announced plain packaging for cigarettes by January 2012, tobacco companies cried foul. They warned a legal battle could ensue, and that plain packaging would breach trademark law, international trade agreements and intellectual property rights. The world will be watching Australia to see how the pioneering legislation progresses. Anti-smoking campaigners claim plain packs and more prominent health warnings will particularly discourage teenage smokers, who are more likely to view a cigarette brand as a status symbol. Since 1980, smoking rates in Australia have dropped from 34 per cent to 19 per cent in 2007. But the war is not yet won: 4000 Victorians die of smoking-related conditions each year, and 750,000 Victorians still smoke.

Since anti-smoking campaigns began, smokers and tobacco companies have argued that restrictions have infringed civil liberties. They have attempted to persuade citizens they have a “right to smoke”, and that the nanny state is taking away that right. But bans on smoking in bars, restaurants and the workplace have eventually been accepted – even by smokers – despite an initial flurry of protest. This suggests many smokers are ambivalent about their habit, and do not wish to inflict harmful cigarette smoke on others.

Vic Zurek, the head of the newly formed group, Australian Smokers Rights, expressed this ambivalence when he said: “I agree with helping people quit if they want to and to try to stop kids taking up the habit, but I don’t agree in a free country in forcing people.” Measures introduced so far have made it more difficult and expensive to smoke, and have made smoking less socially acceptable, but cigarettes have not been outlawed for those over 18.

It can certainly be argued, however, that cigarette companies are behaving immorally by distributing such a harmful product. ”Working people don’t have much in life; a beer and a cigarette are just a couple of small pleasures and we can’t even do that any more,” says Mr Zurek. Measures making it more difficult to smoke seek to protect the community’s wellbeing, but for an addict this self-evident truth can be difficult to see.

Meanwhile, tobacco companies continue to make big returns. The profits of Philip Morris and Imperial Tobacco grew by 20 per cent in Australia in 2009. Big tobacco values money, not morality, with little respect for the truth and even less consideration for the genuine rights of their customers. Surely the right to life, to health, is more significant than a ”right to smoke”.

Anti-tobacco crusaders are fighting a powerful enemy, and their campaigns still have some way to run in Australia and overseas. The Obama administration has asked the Supreme Court to allow the government to seek almost $US300 billion from the tobacco industry for damaging the health of Americans. (In 2006, the US District Court found tobacco companies falsely denied the adverse effects of smoking, concealed evidence that nicotine was addictive and lied about their manipulation of nicotine in cigarettes to create addiction.) In the US, too, smoking has been banned by 36 councils in public-housing blocks, a move being monitored in Australia. In Australia, lobbyists are asking for a ban on cigarette vending machines, and for smoking to be barred on university campuses.

Some may say such measures go too far, but the chief executive of VicHealth, Todd Harper, points out tobacco companies are playing with a stacked deck: after 100 cigarettes, a smoker is hooked. Consumers need to be protected from an enemy in the marketplace.

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