Matthew Hilton examines the mystique surrounding tobacco which continues to confound the anti-smoking lobby.
It is now fifty years since Richard Doll and Bradford Hill first published their preliminary findings linking tobacco smoking with lung cancer. Their cautious conclusion, that ‘smoking is a factor, and an important factor, in the production of carcinoma of the lung’, has been subsequently confirmed by thousands of other studies which have also established connections with heart disease, bronchitis, indigestion and even impotence. The widespread availability of this potentially lethal drug has consequently raised difficult questions about the duties of manufacturers and governments to protect consumers from harmful legal products. The present Labour government’s attempt to ban cigarette advertising is just the latest example in a long history of restrictions on the industry which stretch back at least to the 1965 ban on television advertising.
Yet these voluntary agreements have not been particularly effective. Industry lobbyists have managed to persuade government ministers and officials not to curtail tobacco and cigarette marketing too prohibitively, whilst an enormous expenditure on advertising has ensured that leading brands have remained household names. In addition, tobacco companies have consistently, irresponsibly and cynically refuted the findings of the non-tobacco sponsored scientific community. The Treasury, too, has been an unwilling advocate of tobacco control, it being all too aware of the importance of tobacco duties to the central revenue. The lead against the industry has therefore come not from central government but from semi-official specialist institutions such as ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) and the Medical Research Council; and aggrieved smokers have had to turn to private legal proceedings – rather than to public policy – in their unsuccessful attempts to gain redress