I recently watched the first part of a two part BBC documentary called Burning Desire, which I think could fairly be described as an anti smoking, anti tobacco industry program.
Some reluctant credit was given to British American Tobacco for allowing access to the program makers, and for admitting that tobacco can do harm. Perhaps there was also some credit for developing safer products but I suspect from the tone of the first part that the second part (which I have not been able to see yet) will still emphasise the evil of tobacco companies rather than any benefits of e cigarettes and other safer tobacco products.
It is pretty clear to me that when evidence started to mount that cigarettes could be a serious danger to people’s health the big tobacco companies were at a loss as to what to do or say. So many of them lied or tried to hide the truth. They were indeed corrupt. I don’t think however they were any more evil or corrupt than any other industry would have been in the circumstances. If substantial evidence emerged that hamburgers or cola could give you cancer, does anyone really believe that MacDonalds or Coca Cola would instantly accept the findings and agree to recompense anybody who had been harmed by their product? The politics and structure of the capitalist economy does not promote total honesty and I think if you favour a capitalist economy you have to take that fact on board. Moreover if the big tobacco companies had thrown their hands up in horror at the thought that their products might harm people and decided to instantly stop producing cigarettes, millions of people would have lost their livelihoods and there would have been a serious economic depression which may have resulted in more ill health and death than smoking is said to cause.
Peter Taylor, the presenter of the program is an award winning journalist with a very clear agenda. He hates smoking and considers it to be a huge problem for public health and welfare. In the 1970s he made some ground breaking documentaries in which he exposed some of the dangers of smoking and the degree to which producers were ignoring or hiding that fact. I applaud his journalistic skills and tenacity and would fight for his right to go on making documentaries that vested interests would rather he didn’t. However, on the subject of smoking he is not neutral and his documentary has to be seen in that light. There are things he could have said which he chose not to; in fact various health lobbies are often guilty of that.
There were a couple of things in his documentary which I thought could easily be interpreted differently if one’s mind was not already made up to see things in a certain way…
In one section of the program he interviewed a couple of life long smokers who were clearly suffering from serious, life threatening health problems. The thrust of this section of the program seemed to be to demonstrate the harm smoking can do and to put the responsibility for these people’s illness onto the tobacco industry. The man and woman filmed were in their late fifties or early sixties. At one point the woman said that several years ago she had been given just months to live. Well, I am truly glad she proved them wrong, but, you know, she is still alive… The man said that for much of his life he had been smoking up to 100 unfiltered cigarettes per day!! To me it was amazing that he was still alive at all. If I was smoking 100 cigarettes per day, I wouldn’t expect to reach my fifties. ANYTHING taken that excessively is bound to be bad for your health. I very much suspect that eating 100 apples a day would also lead to an early death. Sorry, but I don’t think the tobacco industry should be held responsible for other people’s lack of intelligence or self control.
The other thing that stood out for me in the program was a statistic that was mentioned somewhere. It is claimed that half of all smokers will die prematurely from a smoking related disease. That’s terrible, isn’t it?
Or is it?
If half of all smokers die early of a smoking related illness, what about the other half? Perhaps we have been so focused on the half empty part of the glass for so long that we have lost sight of the half full part. Taken at face value this statistic would actually seem to imply that half of all smokers suffer no ill effects and may live just as long as anybody else. I wonder if any money has been spent on research to find out why that is? Surely that information could be useful to both smokers and non smokers.
And finally something that is never mentioned in documentaries of this type is that non smokers are not immune from the medical conditions associated with smoking. Some non smokers will still get lung cancer, heart conditions and strokes. And some will die from those things. Moreover even the healthiest, non drinking, non smoking, clean living individuals can still get sick, can still get killed in accidents.
We will all die one day. Surely it is how we choose to live and enjoy our life that really counts.