Anti-tobacco Hysteria Kills Free Choice

By Alain Leveque

Strange times! When folks we hardly know get to rule our lives, well, they do. Every new regime eagerly enacts more laws while rarely repealing old ones. In the bargain, those with delegated authority inevitably stack on more regulations, more ordinances, more rules, and more bylaws too. And to top it off, various lobby groups push for legislation suiting their own ideological slant or self-interest. As the years roll on, and more and more rights are extinguished, more personal liberties trashed, little by little we become surrogates for the worldviews of others.


Speaking of others, they’ve surfaced in Rodrigues. Of late, anti-tobacco lobbyists are pressing for a blanket ban on all tobacco-growing on the island. Or more precisely, they want a right possessed and exercised by people throughout recorded human history, taken away from hand-to-mouth dirt farmers. Lobbyists reckon tobacco damages health, and growing it on their doorstep only encourages Rodriguans to smoke. Another contention is that contact with wet tobacco causes dermal absorption of nicotine, leading to nausea, malaise, dizziness, abdominal cramps, respiratory complications and cardiac problems. What's more, citing overseas studies, lobbyists claim that organophosphate based pesticides used in tobacco cultivation trigger depression and suicide in those exposed to them.


Let's see. More often than not, heavy long-term smoking kills. No fancy arguments from me. It’s bad. It’s 2008. We know. What, did any of the Rodriguan clan say smoking was good for them? Hmm. Incidentally, heavy long-term consumption of junk food, salt, or grog brings on the eternal cold too. Will our crusading idéologues also picket fast-food outlets and rally to outlaw rum, phoenix beer, and salt?


Let’s zoom in on a few realities. Once harvested, tobacco is dried and cured, then sold and shipped to Mauritius. As there are no tobacco factories in Rodrigues, all cigarettes must be imported. Not exactly on our doorstep, is it? Granted, a handful of older Rodriguans still smoke chopped-up dried tobacco leaves, locally known as gro taba.  But besides its choking, harsh aftertaste, gro taba is looked upon as the smoke of the underclass and, for that reason, would-be movers-and-shakers and young go-getters just don't go near the stuff. Hardly tobacco's poster child! At any rate, living next to a brewery does not an alcoholic make.


The assertion that wet tobacco and its pesticides make growers sick, sad and suicidal draws an incredibly long bow. To make ends meet, subsistence farmers have been planting tobacco on small plots of arid land in the villages – without any drama – for generations. Typically, natural fertilizers obtained free or on the cheap are used, but occasionally chemical fertilizers are applied. It is true that tobacco and tomato pesticides contain organophosphate based compounds, which once exposed to air, soil and sunlight degrade rapidly. While it’s not sarin nerve gas, any pesticide, like battery acid or rat poison serves a specific purpose, and most sensible people instinctively know not to drink it. Organophosphate compounds are also found in insecticides, gearboxes, herbicides, paint thinners, cement mix and nail polish removers. In short, they are widely used domestically and industrially.


Aha – but the studies! Yes, I recall studies dissecting astrological phenomena, analyzing the Loch Ness monster, and poring over the Roswell Alien’s autopsy. For 1500 years, studies endorsed bleeding patients with leeches. In-depth studies found that artificial sweeteners, red meat, doughnuts, refined sugar, milk, hotdogs, food additives and, far too many others to list here, cause cancer. And, not so long ago avant-garde studies forecasted how the Y2K Millennium Bug would shut the world down. Remember? I do. Yet, had we reverently treated them all as the Dead Sea Scrolls, we'd now be bunkered deep underground with crackpots, eating organic glue.  

Suppose hysteria got the better of common-sense and growing tobacco was proscribed in Rodrigues. Would that reduce demand? Would it stop Rodriguans smoking? What piddling difference would it make? Wouldn't smokers continue buying cigarettes from shops – as they do now? Am I missing something here! Or are lobbyists proposing to restrict cigarette imports as well? Or ration shops? Or are they advocating total prohibition? If not, then, apart from compounding poverty, what else does this inherently paternalistic campaign hope to achieve? Your guess is as good as mine.


Already tobacco is taxed to such an extent as to put it almost beyond the reach of the ordinary person. Has that reduced smoking? Nope! To offset the price hike, smokers just puff on cheaper brands, get bigger packs and buy wholesale. All in all, smokers now smoke more. People adapt. Those who can't afford to snort cocaine, sniff petrol. Restriction wouldn’t rein in addiction; it’d push the industry underground and fuel the forbidden-fruit-syndrome, unintentionally making tobacco appear cool. Prohibition would be worse. It’d create lucrative black-market monopolies for organized crime, corrupt police and politicians. Fancy that! And, more disturbingly, it’d force young smokers to mix with recidivists to get a tobacco fix. Basically, instead of being poisoned legally with a cheap regulated poison, smokers would simply be poisoned illegally with an expensive unregulated one.


800,000 people in Brazil, 16 million in India, 22 million in China, countless millions in Russia, Europe, America, Malawi, and in 120 other countries produce 7 million tonnes of tobacco a year. But lo and behold, it is the poverty-stricken farmers of this small country that zealots want sacrificed on the altar of health evangelism. Simply put: Business as usual for Big Tobacco but bridle the little guy with chains of steel.


In a world of blind androids, social engineers could dump identity cards and implant smokers with encoded microchips. Thankfully, we’re not quite there yet. In the main, barring police states, most civilized countries still respect the individual’s free will. There are no prêt-à-porter answers for harmonizing the rights of smokers with those of non-smokers. But even if the jury is still out, it’s important to protect free choice. For if choice dies, the rumored gap between us and laboratory rats narrows. In his eminent book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill gives a hint on the best way forward:


The free individual is not accountable to society for his actions in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion and avoidance by other people, if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.


Education to dissuade children from taking up smoking, and support for smokers wanting to quit or manage their habits may help – stunts won’t.   


Alain L’évêque


By: Alain Leveque

About the Author:

Alain Leveque is a writer living in Melbourne Australia who promotes the self-determination of the people of Rodrigues island.