Education, not litigation, is the way to cut smoking

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tobacco IS the only legal consumer product that kills people when used as intended. That stark statement is often used by propagandists against the cigarette industry, yet it is entirely factual. In moral terms, tobacco companies are not like other enterprises. Even arms makers can argue that their products defend democracy or help to fight just wars. Cigarette makers can justify their trade by no principle whatever.

All the same, the award of $3bn in punitive damages against Philip Morris, the company behind such brand names as Marlboro, is unreasonable. (Indeed, it may well be struck out on appeal.) This is not merely because the US concept of punitive or exemplary damages is undesirable, although it is. Damages should be awarded to compensate people for losses they have suffered, not used to express disapproval. In that respect, among others, the British legal system is superior.

Even if we thought the Los Angeles Superior Court jury was entitled to try to put Philip Morris out of business, we would disagree with its objective. In the end, the issue is a simple one. Either tobacco should be banned, or it should not. This newspaper prefers to allow people to make their own bad decisions, and prefers not to outlaw activities, such as smoking, fox-hunting and listening to Westlife, which it finds hard to fathom.

If tobacco is not going to be banned, it can be controlled. Following the greater awareness of the dangers ­ and simple unpleasantness ­ of passive consumption of other people's smoke, bans on smoking in public and office spaces have transformed this country for the better.

Unless tobacco is outlawed, however, it would be wrong to ban advertising altogether, and it would be wrong to use measures such as punitive damages to try to push the cigarette companies into bankruptcy. If Philip Morris and BAT ceased to exist, other companies based in other parts of the world would replace them. Nor is taxation the only way to try to keep tobacco consumption as low as possible. It might be satisfying to raise the tax on cigarettes indefinitely, but the Treasury has already tested this policy to the limit, with the result that, in the relatively open European market, smuggling is now out of control.

Over the past quarter-century, the proportion of the British population that smokes has fallen from 46 per cent to 27 per cent, largely driven by better knowledge of the risks. But the decline has been mostly among older people; young men want to do something of which their elders disapprove and young women want to be thin.

Anyone who is serious about reducing tobacco use should concentrate on educating potential young consumers rather than fighting court cases against the suppliers.