The many faces of tobacco

Oscar Wilde, a man of dry wit and admirable turn of phrase, once wrote that the only thing more demoralising and more expensive than smoking a cigarette was marriage.

Over the years, numerous similar statements and sentiments about the use of tobacco have been made by people all over the world who were and are convinced that there are no benefits to be found in the use of tobacco – from a health perspective, that is.
Some have stated their position more bluntly: with one anti-tobacco activist saying that there are only two things in this world that kill people when they are used for the purpose that they were expressly made for. One of them is a gun and the other is a cigarette.
The history of the use of tobacco paints a picture of uncertainty and scientific and intellectual flip-flops that have not aided the anti-tobacco lobby much.
Ever since Christopher Columbus introduced Europeans to the tobacco plant, people have been divided as to the full extent that governments should regulate its use and promotion.
In the 16th Century, the then French Ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot – who named the plant Herba Nicotiana – sent the mother of the French king tobacco samples and told her that it had healing powers.
He advised her to inhale crushed tobacco in much the same way that we now inhale smoke from cigarettes.
The plant gained such a good reputation that Europeans began referring to it as Herba Panaceja – the plant that cures everything.
Tobacco gained popularity worldwide with the growth of electronic media and its attendant advertising industry.
This saw it evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry in a phenomenally short space of time starting from the 1950s to the present.
One estimate has it that the last 90 years have seen over 1.1 billion people lighting up a fag with an average consumption of 15 cigarettes per smoker per day.
The average for Africa is below the international average at around 10 cigarettes per smoker per day.
However, with advances in chemistry, biological sciences and other academic fields, people have become more and more aware of the negative effects of a drug once thought of as being capable of curing anything.
This resulted in the emergence of the classic battle between anti-tobacco lobbyists and the money-men of the international tobacco industry, often referred to as Big Tobacco.
Scientists have come up with tonnes of research documents detailing the harmful effects of the estimated 300-plus poisonous chemicals found in tobacco.
Big Tobacco has responded by sponsoring its own scientists to come up with reams of reports “invalidating” the research of the anti-tobacco lobby.
Those who have read John Grisham’s book “Runaway Jury” (which was adapted for the cinema) will be aware of the intrigues that surround the battle between Big Tobacco and anti-tobacco campaigners.
Opponents of tobacco use say they have found that smoking causes or is directly linked to the occurrence of an amazing 17 different types of cancer.
These include cancers of the lungs, mouth cavity, throat, oesophagus, stomach, bladder and kidneys among others.
Hardly a good resume for tobacco.
Other health complications associated with tobacco use include coughs, bronchitis, heart problems, the constricting of the veins and – most worryingly for many smokers – increased risk of infertility and other reproductive health concerns such as erectile dysfunction.
Some research says those who smoke anything between 10 and 20 cigarettes per day on average live five years less than non-smokers and ex-smokers.
That has not stopped Big Tobacco, which increasingly looks to the world’s youth for a captive market.
Figures from WHO indicate that across the globe, 19 percent of children aged 13 to 15 smoke, with 25 percent of them lighting up their very first cigarette before they are even 10-years-old.
If statistics provided by “independent” researchers and NGOs are to be trusted, 17 percent of people below the age of 30 in Ghana and Nigeria have smoked; the figure is 24 percent for South Africa, 37 percent for Burkina Faso, 35 percent for Namibia and 25 percent for Zimbabwe.
There is much money involved in both the promotion of and opposition to tobacco use. Politicians need causes and the anti-tobacco cause is as good a cause as any.
So just like with guns, tobacco does not only kill – it makes much money for both those who support it and those who are against it.
Big tobacco is the single largest sponsor of what is probably the most expensive sport to advertise in the world – Formula One racing.
Tobacco is a pillar of a number of emerging economies in the world and hence the anti-tobacco lobby has not gained much traction in countries such as Brazil, China, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, who are major producers and exporters of the crop.
When the entire production chain is factored in, millions of jobs across the world stand be affected by any ban or limitation on tobacco use.
The number of people who will be affected in downstream industries is difficult to estimate as we will be talking about people employed and supported by tobacco in seed production, coal production and transportation, curing, packaging, distribution, marketing, selling … the list goes on and on.
This means the anti-tobacco lobby – whether it likes it or not – must proffer emerging economies with alternatives to that industry if it really expects its efforts to bear global fruits.
In the absence of economic alternatives, many countries will simply do the bare minimum within the context of public health vis-à-vis tobacco use.
At the end of the day, it would seem, it all comes down to a question of health and profits.  But a compromise can be struck.
 A gradual down-scaling of the importance of tobacco to economies as alternatives are sought would be far more beneficial than a large-scale and immediate banning of the crop. For now, smokers will largely continue to smoke in peace.


March 2013
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