• November 28, 2023

The Blame Game

 The Blame Game

Credit: V Chalup

Credit: V Chalup

Tobacco companies often get blamed for things only because they are tobacco companies.

By George Gay

Wow! U.S. tobacco companies—just how bad are they? Well, I’ll give you an idea. I received in September an email with news of a study that “… shows food from tobacco-owned brands more ‘hyperpalatable’ than competitors’ food.” The study, by researchers at the University of Kansas, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction.

Addiction, tobacco companies, hyperpalatable—you get the drift.

Hyperpalatable food is apparently what most of us refer to—inconsiderately given the level of hunger in the world—as “junk food”: “… kind of salty, sweet and high-fat fare,” according to the email announcing the publication of the study, which quoted the lead author as saying, “… [h]yperpalatable foods can be irresistible and difficult to stop eating.” Hmm.

U.S. tobacco companies apparently invested heavily in the U.S. food industry during the 1980s, and the researchers found that “… between 1988 and 2001, tobacco-owned foods were 29 percent more likely to be classified as fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable and 80 percent more likely to be classified as carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable than foods that were not tobacco-owned.”

However, the tobacco companies apparently divested from the U.S. “food system” between the early to mid-2000s, so by now, you would have expected that junk food would be almost off the menu and U.S. citizens brimming with health and vitality. But not so fast! The Kansas University study found that the availability of fat-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods and carbohydrate-and-sodium hyperpalatable foods was still high in 2018, regardless of prior tobacco ownership, “showing these foods have become mainstays of the American diet.”

So, I suppose we must conclude that some food companies not associated with tobacco companies are equally as bad as those associated with tobacco companies when it comes to dishing out junk food? But no; in fact, the researchers have another suggestion to make: “… perhaps the shadow of Big Tobacco has remained,” they say.

Talk about giving a dog a bad name. This has nothing to do with a shadow; it has to do with something called competition. I really hate to state the obvious, but this is down to “market forces.” When one company puts on the market a product that is more useful, shinier or, yes, more palatable than that offered by other companies, its product sells well, and other companies notice this and, wanting to stay in business, start marketing similar products if they can (you won’t read marketing insights like this every day).

The “market” has some advantages and some disadvantages; the latter crop up, for instance, where a product is hyperpalatable to individuals while making public health officials hyperventilate. However, the tobacco industry did not invent the market.

Having said that, I would not seek to defend tobacco companies, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, in respect of all they have done, but to me, what is important is to look forward rather than backward and realize that many of them seem to have the potential and the willingness to address some of the harms they have caused in the past. It seems to me to be absurd not to take advantage of whatever expertise they can bring to the table.

But, clearly, not everybody thinks this way, and at this point, I would like to switch my attention to the U.K., where, also in September, the U.K. Vaping Industry Association (UKVIA) announced that “the membership of [BAT], Imperial Brands, Japan Tobacco International and Philip Morris International has come to an end.”

“This means that the UKVIA will no longer include any tobacco companies within its membership,” the announcement said. “Following a member-wide consultation, the association will not be accepting any new applications for membership by vaping businesses wholly/part-owned or acquired by tobacco companies in the future. As a result, it will not be accepting any tobacco company funding in the future.”

Two main reasons were given for the change. Firstly, there was said to be a misperception that the association was largely financially supported by tobacco firms, and even though funding from tobacco-owned vaping brands for the most recent membership year amounted to less than four percent, this misconception had given the impression in some quarters that the association was synonymous with combustible tobacco.

Secondly, the association says that it had underestimated the drag on engaging with some key stakeholders, particularly those in public health, that was caused by restrictions placed on tobacco companies.

In one respect, I don’t blame the UKVIA for what it has done because, I assume, it has decided that it can advance the cause of its members and tobacco harm reduction (THR) more effectively if it is not associated with tobacco companies. It would argue, no doubt, that it will help prolong the healthy lives of more current smokers if its untainted members go it alone.

But its stance does worry me because it seems to be giving in to, and aligning with, the irrational views of others. If we want to solve the problems caused by smoking, we, and “we” includes public health folk, need to be taking advice from anybody who can provide insights into smoking and quitting, and there can be little doubt that tobacco companies can provide such insights.

In fact, much against my better instinct, I shall provide a little history here. The first time I heard about the continuum of risk and THR was at a meeting called by one of the major tobacco manufacturers that has now been ejected from the UKVIA. And that meeting was called some years before the arrival on the scene of the electronic cigarettes now advocated by the association. It should be remembered that tobacco companies have been in the vanguard of some important initiatives when it comes to THR.

Given this, I believe that those THR stakeholders not part of the tobacco industry should not give in to intellectual cowardice. It is possible to listen to the ideas of tobacco companies and then reject them. There is no obligation. I do not accept as right everything that tobacco companies do, and I’m certain those companies would not endorse much of what I have to say.

It is also worthwhile mentioning something that might seem a little perverse: the fact that if it were not for smokers and the tobacco industry, the UKVIA and all its member companies would not exist. Nor would all the jobs in tobacco/nicotine public health and the universities where many people make a decent living out of researching often pointless aspects of tobacco and nicotine consumption to come up with excruciating ways of making life unpleasant for those who choose to smoke.

It used to be said of the tobacco industry that it needed to keep addicting new generations of people to tobacco products in order to keep its operations going. So, since we are told that most vapers are recruited from the ranks of smokers, the UKVIA, all its members, the numerous other vaping associations, public health officials, academics, researchers, those of us commenting on these matters in the media, etc., are all dependent on a “healthy” tobacco industry, something we need to keep in mind before we get too holier-than-thou—before we start tut-tutting about smokers over our gin and tonics at yet another THR conference.

Perhaps I’m being unfair, but I sometimes get the feeling that it is only smokers who live authentic lives aligned with their values while the rest of us have at least associate membership to the hypocrisy institute. There is an interesting piece posted by Clive Bates on his Counterfactual website in which he describes 10 ways in which tobacco control advocates have commandeered the methods of Big Tobacco.

I was particularly taken with his point six, “aggressive economic actors. Big Tobacco was an economic interest group threatened by evidence of the dangers of smoking tobacco,” Bates points out. “Tobacco control activism is an economic interest group threatened by evidence of the safety of smoke-free nicotine use,” he added. (I should point out that at the end of his piece, Bates says that his comments are aimed only at certain sections of tobacco control activism and that he acknowledges that many in this field are sincere in what they do.)

But let’s widen that idea out a little. To my way of thinking, the vaping industry has become a fairly aggressive economic actor while many people within the vaping community are involved in what I would describe as tobacco control activism, though it is difficult to be sure whether they would be seen as being on the acceptable side or the other.

Bates indicates that the World Health Organization is one of the agencies he sees as exhibiting the “awful attitudes and behaviors” of mainstream global tobacco control, so I would suggest that though it might be wrong to lump the vaping industry into the mainstream of tobacco control, it must be conceded that it seems ready to get into bed with the WHO when that agency’s questionable figures might help advance vaping’s cause.

Of course, it could be argued that marching to the tune of 8 million premature, smoking-related deaths a year is just fine when under the THR banner, but not when under the banner of quit-or-die, but it makes me feel uncomfortable. If you believe something is not right, you are not acting authentically to pretend it is right for what you might think is the right reason.

As Bates well catalogues, both Big Tobacco and Big [not his word] Tobacco Control have got things badly wrong at times. But is there a danger that Big Vaping is going down a similar route? Currently, a lot of noise is being made about calls for banning disposable vapes, and it is true that a lot of that noise is coming from people deliberately distorting the picture by linking what they say is a rise in vaping by young people with the arrival of disposable products.

Once again, the figures are highly questionable, and, in any case, vaping among young people is a policing issue, not a product issue; and from this point of view, it is right to challenge the conclusions being drawn.

But there is something else going on here that I don’t think reflects well on the vaping industry. In part, the calls for bans on disposables are about environmental issues, which cannot be dismissed. As far as I have seen, the industry defends its position opposing bans on disposables with four main arguments.

One argument has it that a ban will not work. The second says it is encouraging consumers to dispose of their used products at points from which they can be collected and disposed of properly. The third claims that it is improving its disposable products so that they are easier to dispose of in an environmentally friendly manner. And the fourth states that because disposable products require a lower initial outlay than nondisposable products, they help financially poorer smokers transition to a less risky product.

If I were somebody promoting bans on disposables, I would dismiss the first and second arguments as being: 1) something for the imposing authorities to worry about and 2) little more than wishful thinking. While accepting the possibility that the third might prove feasible, I would suggest that any ban could be reconsidered when an acceptable level of improvement had been reached.

And in respect of the fourth argument, I would suggest that the industry involves itself in a little introspection. Is its concern really about impoverished smokers or about sales and profits? Indeed, could it instead of selling disposables sell its nondisposables for less than is currently the case and accept that its profits will fall? In what other ways do the people working in the industry, and especially those at the top of industry, show concern for impoverished people? Do they, for instance, advocate the redistribution of wealth?

I think these questions and more are worth considering. Otherwise, in the future, it might be the case that somebody—possibly an alien visiting Earth after the demise of humanity—will revisit Bates’ piece and add point 11. Big Tobacco failed to deal with the environmental harms caused by its cigarettes. Big Tobacco Control failed effectively to oppose Big Tobacco’s environmental shortcomings. Big Vaping knowingly and wilfully contributed to the Earth’s environmental breakdown.