Smoking for England

Paul Foot

  • Smoke Ring: The Politics of Tobacco by Peter Taylor
    Bodley Head, 384 pp, £9.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 370 30513 2

Some time in the late 1960s the then prime minister Harold Wilson started using a new phrase to describe the world we live in: ‘pluralist democracy’. The word ‘pluralist’, which had been hanging around for a long time without doing any harm to anyone, meant, I think, ‘accepting many interests and ideas, rather than one’. In pluralist democracy, government plays the role of wise and benevolent chairman, holding the ring for the great interests which ‘jockey’ for power, rather than controlling them. The power of these interests, notably the big corporations, was controlled, it was argued, not so much by government as by the ‘jockeying’ of all the other interests. Government is always there, of course, to check any excess: but those who suggested any extension of government over the great corporations were ushering in a dark age of bureaucratic tyranny. This theory later became the central slogan of the Thatcher-Reagan reaction of the Eighties.

Peter Taylor’s marvellous book does awful damage to it. He deals with the power of the tobacco companies, especially the six giant ones which control the production, distribution and marketing of the crop all over the world. Tobacco has been around for some centuries, of course, but the enormous power and wealth of these companies is relatively recent. The habit of smoking tobacco through cigarettes didn’t catch on among the masses until the First World War, and as late as 1920 British men were smoking on average only six cigarettes a day. Twenty years later the figure had tripled. In America, the ‘take-off’ years were a little later, in the 1930s and 1940s.

The delight which this new mass fetish brought to the shareholders of the Big Six tobacco companies was tempered by another set of statistics. Before cigarettes, there was hardly any lung cancer. After cigarettes, lung cancer became an epidemic in all cigarette-smoking countries. In 1920, in England and Wales less than 250 people (a negligible proportion of the total deaths) died from lung cancer. In 1960, 10,000 people died from it.

Doctors noticed this coincidence, and as early as 1950 were making public statements linking smoking with cancer. But it wasn’t until two comprehensive reports, in 1962 and 1964, from the British Royal College of Physicians and the American Surgeon General, that cigarette-smoking became recognised as the cause, not only of lung cancer on a wide scale, but also of emphysema, arteriosclerosis and heart failure. It was the single most obvious cause of non-accidental illness and death. The British report drew sharp comparisons with the measures taken in the 18th century to clean up water supplies in order to get rid of cholera and other associate diseases, which rose and fell according to the filth of the water supply.

Society, it was argued, should do something to prevent a drug which was widely peddled and was causing death and disease on every side. Other drugs which circulated much less widely and caused less illness and death were viciously proscribed by the criminal law. Medicines were closely monitored even in the most free-enterprise, pluralist democracy. Should not governments, at least, take active steps to ensure that the cigarette fetish was discouraged, preferably banned? The argument seemed irresistible even to the most confirmed pluralist. It was clearly, after 1962 and 1964, time for the people, through their elected representatives, their educational systems and their health services, to take control of the cigarette interest and put a stop to it.

What Peter Taylor’s book shows is that instead of the people taking control of the industry, the industry took control of the people. The result is that more than twenty years after they were exposed as the most dangerous drug-peddlers of modern times, the tobacco barons are more powerful, more cocky and more wealthy than they ever were. In Britain over the last twenty years, three Ministers of Health, spurred on by the medical profession, set out to curb the tobacco industry. They were Kenneth Robinson and David Owen (Labour) and Sir George Young (Tory). All three were routed. The hardest fighter of the three was Sir George Young. His determination to cut down, for instance, on tobacco’s sponsorship of sports made him unpopular in those parts of the Tory Party which had been wooed and wined by the tobacco industry. Among those who intervened against Sir George was the husband of the Prime Minister, Mr Denis Thatcher. At a Downing Street reception in 1981, he told his old friend Dr Gerard Vaughan, then Minister of Health, that a lot of important money came to sport from tobacco, and that any curbs on tobacco sponsorship would be disastrous. A few months later, while still manfully struggling to cut down the industry, Sir George was peremptorily removed from the Health Ministry and transferred to the Department of the Environment. In his place came what the tobacco industry’s pressure group described as ‘less excitable’ people, and sports sponsorship by tobacco companies was left alone.

For those who believe that the Mother of Parliaments is a bastion of liberty against vested interests, there are a host of cautionary tales in Peter Taylor’s book. My favourite is the amazing tale of the Zoos Bill. For a moment in July 1981 it looked as though a Private Member’s Bill curbing tobacco advertising might make progress on the floor of the House of Commons. Only an uncontroversial Bill on private zoos had to be heard first. On the day before the debate no amendments had been put down to the Zoos Bill. On the morning of the debate itself, 160 amendments suddenly appeared on the order paper. Twenty-seven of these were in the name of Sir Anthony Kershaw, paid Parliamentary consultant to the biggest tobacco company in the world, British American Tobacco. These zoo amendments took all day. The tobacco Bill was talked out. Sir Anthony Kershaw told Peter Taylor: ‘I’ve always been interested in animals, but I didn’t want to see Laurie Pavitt’s Bill’ – on tobacco industry advertising – ‘go through.’

Another minister in an elected government who fell casualty to this sort of democracy was Joe Califano, who became Health Secretary to President Carter in 1976. Califano struggled manfully to improve the health of Americans, which he understood was his job, until he was broken by the power of the tobacco farmers of North Carolina. Although they represented a tiny fraction of voting Americans, these wealthy gentlemen had organised one of the most powerful lobbies in all the United States. After two and a half years of obstruction, Califano was finally sacked, and the tobacco barons held onto their power and their absurdly expensive price-support scheme.

More recently, the tobacco industry in America was presented with a new threat: direct issue balloting on smoking in public places, organised by non-smokers who didn’t see why other people’s ‘right’ to smoke should poison the air they breathed. In the biggest of the states – California – it looked for a moment as though the health of the people might triumph over the wealth of the tobacco industry. With six weeks to polling day, the Proposition to ban smoking from public places was winning by two to one. Then, between 24 September and 20 October, CARE, the tobacco industry’s front organisation, ‘made 537 payments, totalling 710,784 dollars to California’s radio and TV stations. Once again the industry’s money snatched victory.’ Proposition Ten was lost by 53 per cent to 47 per cent.

Beating elected governments, however, is nothing to the tobacco industry unless it can keep tight hold of its consumers. Chapter after chapter in this superbly-researched book show how steadfastly the tobacco industry sticks to this task. The ‘free press’ and ‘free television’ are kept in control through advertising. When the Sunday Times stepped out of line and started to publish articles hostile to smoking, its lucrative tobacco advertising was withdrawn until the paper saw sense and changed its tune. When Thames Television broadcast Peter Taylor’s historic programme Death in the West, which showed the famous Marlborough cowboys dying like flies from lung cancer, a volley of writs persuaded the company to hand over all the copies of the film and to promise not to sell it overseas. (This eventually backfired through a glorious leak of one of the tapes of the film to anti-smoking organisations in America, which led to its showing all over the world.) When cigarette advertising was banned on television in Britain, the industry switched to the much more subtle and persuasive sponsorship of sports, until it effectively controlled and corrupted whole areas of the most popular (and allegedly health-inducing) pastimes of the people. Motor racing, cricket, snooker – all voluntarily put themselves in hock to the ever-generous tobacco companies. The tobacco companies provided unlimited funds for the arts, specialising, for reasons which are not quite clear, in opera. Lord Goodman, a former chairman of the Arts Council, is quoted as saying: ‘I will take money for the Arts, Sir, be it from murderers, rapists or anybody.’ Others were not quite so sure. Sir Roy Shaw, Secretary General of the Arts Council, told Peter Taylor on his retirement that he thought tobacco sponsorship was ‘an immoral source of funds’. He was replaced by Luke Rittner, former director of the Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts, which was founded in 1976 by, among others, Tony Garrett, chairman of Imperial Tobacco.

For all this hectic lobbying and slush, tobacco has lost a little of its pulling power in Britain and America since its peak in 1973. It has responded with relish by concentrating more and more on selling its poison in places where a few years ago cigarette-smoking was almost unheard of. In the so-called Third World, the companies have gone from strength to strength. There, they have had no awkward health lobbies or elected parliaments or warnings on packets. In dictatorships like the Dominican Republic in the late 1960s there was only one man to bribe and flatter. In vast and poverty-stricken countries like Brazil, any advertising is welcome and unrestricted, however much it beckons multitudes of children to an early and ugly death.

All of this has been carried out with a tremendous flourish of morality. In North Carolina, for instance, the freedom to peddle the most dangerous drug of all is heralded as God-given, and the defence of tobacco is sustained with Bible-thumping crusades. The Moral Majority which swept Ronald Reagan to power was financed and enthused by tobacco. Like the Scottish doctors Jardine and Matheson who brought Christianity to the heathen and opium to the Chinese, or like the God-fearing English slave-drivers who sang hymns as they tossed the dying slaves into the sea, the tobacco companies have defended the spread of lung cancer throughout the world, not just as a basic freedom, but as part of the onward march of white Christian civilisation.

There are too few journalists with the guts or the passion to stick around for long in the vast, uncharted areas of irresponsible power. Peter Taylor is one of them. He has written a courageous and expert book. I was worried to discover a few mistakes in areas familiar to me: Taylor writes that Labour never had a majority after 1974, which they did, and he invents a General Election in 1976. He says that the breathalyser was unpopular electorally, which I doubt very much, and ascribes two by-elections lost by Labour in 1967 partly to the tobacco issue, which is nonsense. I suspect, from these errors, that he may overstate his case on the political impact of tobacco, and some of the chapter on Ronald Reagan is clearly guilty of that. But this is a very good book indeed, and everyone interested in the way power works in capitalist (not pluralist) society should read it.