The CDC calls tobacco use “the single most preventable cause of disease, disability, and death in the United States” with an estimated 443,000 smoking related premature deaths and 8.6 million living with serious illnesses caused by smoking. In addition, according to the CDC, tobacco use is responsible for more than $96 billion a year in medical costs and another $97 billion a year from lost productivity. So there’s no question that tobacco plays a major role when it comes to our country’s (and the world’s) health, health care, and medical costs.
One of the most infuriating aspects of the tobacco saga is the role of the tobacco industry and its unlawful and deceptive practices, for which companies have been repeatedly called out and in the U.S. government’s landmark lawsuit, successfully sued. As U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler stated in the final opinion of this lawsuit: “Despite [the] knowledge [of the harmful effects of tobacco], [the Defendants] have consistently, repeatedly, and with enormous skill and sophistication, denied these facts to the public, to the Government, and to the public health community… In short, Defendants have marketed and sold their lethal products with zeal, with deception, with a single-minded focus on their financial success, and without regard for the human tragedy or social costs that success exacted.”
The stories of deception continue to this day, with a new analysis from UCSF, published just a couple weeks ago in PLoS Medicine, showing that tobacco scientists altered their study protocols to obscure the increased toxicity of additives in cigarettes.
Despite the seemingly never ceasing stories of deception and defrauding the public, U.S. tobacco companies had the audacity to sue the federal government this past summer over proposed graphic cigarette warning labels, saying the warnings violate their free speech rights and will cost millions of dollars to print (the latter point elicits a very bitter laugh, given we’re talking about an industry that rakes in billions and billions in profit).
The case was decided in favor of the tobacco companies in district court, but is currently being appealed (and I was happy to see that 24 attorney generals filed a friend of the court brief a couple weeks ago, saying the First Amendment doesn’t prevent the government from requiring “lethal and addictive products carry warning labels that effectively inform consumers of the risks those products entail”).
But what I’d like to turn to is public reaction to the graphic labels fight. Certainly, there are those that support the use of graphic labels on cigarette packages as a way to discourage tobacco use (there is in fact quite a bit of scientific evidence supporting this). But there are also those clamoring about the “nanny state”.
Public health professionals are pretty used to such “nanny” claims, and I think Yale University’s Dr. David Katz captured it perfectly in his Huffington Post article, “Public Health and the Illusion of Your Autonomy”, a few days ago:
“You may think you are defending your autonomy by opposing a ban on toys in Happy Meals. But while you are resisting the tyranny of public health, you are playing right into the hands of a large and rich corporation that is far more concerned with its profits than the health of your child.”
EXACTLY. Why are some people so much more willing to be dictated by for profit corporations (whether in the fast food industry, tobacco industry, or otherwise) than the recommendations of public health and medical professionals?
They are infuriated by the idea of government placing graphic warning labels on cigarette packets, but seemingly unfazed by the continued deceptive practices of tobacco companies (including supposed public service announcements about the harmful effects of cigarettes, which have been shown to be ineffective and sometimes even cause youth to start smoking or have more favorable beliefs about tobacco companies – which is exactly what they have worked to achieve).
They are infuriated by the idea of curtailing the freedom of McDonald’s to put toys to Happy Meals, never mind that it was most likely a decision made after “highly-paid marketing executives told them how to manipulate you by manipulating your children,” as David Katz puts it.
What can we do on this front? My advice today is not so much specific action steps, but more about thinking critically. First, let’s look into the “illusion of our autonomy” in a variety of different arenas – who really controls our behaviors and choices, and what are their motives? Then let’s ask, what can we do – on the ground in our communities and in the policy sphere – to limit the sometimes manipulating and deceptive influence of those with their bottom line in mind instead of what’s best for our health and well being? If you have any thoughts about these questions or related topics, please sound off in the comments!
(This post is cross-posted at www.pursuitofpublichealth.com)