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Tobacco’s hopeless attempt to legitimise its industry

Prior to the lifting of the cigarette ban on 15 August, the tobacco industry said that it had fallen victim to the black market trade and therefore called for higher taxes on tobacco products in lieu of an outright ban on their sale to limit smoking among vulnerable groups. Chris Chatteris comments that the tobacco industry is in a “morally hopeless position” of wanting to continue with business-as-usual despite the health and environmental effects of its products.

I thought I’d seen it all when I watched tobacco company advertisements calling for the end to the ban on the sale of cigarettes. My heart bled! Here was an ‘industry’ which peddles a highly addictive substance which kills people painfully and it was playing the victim!

The tobacco industry’s dilemma

The level of desperation was aptly underlined by the alternative that they posed to government. According to the research of the tobacco companies, people who gave up smoking during the lockdown did so because they found that illegal cigarettes were unaffordable. Therefore, they argued, rather than banning the sale of tobacco completely, the Government should have placed a new tax on it which would have kept the ‘business’ going, dissuaded the poor from squandering their money, and muscled out the illegal suppliers.

If the Government had proposed such a tax, the tobacco producers would have accused it of discriminating against the poor and taking advantage of the pandemic to crack down on them. And now that the ban has been lifted in level 2, we wait with bated breath for the tobacco producers to renew their push for a higher tax to dissuade smokers. It’s not as if they really want their customers to stop buying their products.

The sad fact is that the tobacco companies found themselves in the morally hopeless position of arguing in favour of an addictive drug that damages lungs at a time when people still face the dangers of a disease that can cause severe and fatal respiratory illness. Not an easy one to spin.

Tobacco companies found themselves in the morally hopeless position of arguing in favour of an addictive drug that damages the lungs.

But let us broaden the issue of the source of respiratory illnesses. Perhaps we have already forgotten the Alpine quality of the air we breathed a few days into the lockdown. This contrast made us realise what we had put up with before —you don’t have to be a smoker to have your lungs compromised. Living in the wrong place can be just as harmful. You don’t have to be a smoker to smoke; all you have to do is breathe.

What would it take for pollutant industries to contribute to the common good?

This raises the question about how serious our leaders are about the other destroyers of our lungs – fossil fuels. The statistics have shown that we could largely pay for the implementation of electrified transport and a green electricity supply with the money saved from reduced death rates, slashed medical bills and in increased productivity from a population with healthier lungs.

One acknowledges that tobacco and fossil fuels employ vast workforces and the impact of unemployment needs to be taken into consideration when transitioning to more environmentally friendly industries. But if there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us it is that some products of the economy are more important than others. No one dies for lack of a bottle of brandy, but nurses have died because they did not have personal protective equipment. Food and fresh water are more important than football or flying.

The moral thing for tobacco and fossil fuel producers to do would be to chart a transition to the production of something healthier and more important for the common good.

Tobacco can hardly be termed ‘essential’ or a vital contribution to the common good.

The moral and sensible thing for tobacco and fossil fuel producers to do would be to chart a transition to the production of something healthier and more important for the common and individual good. Tobacco fields are often extremely fertile, but one does not hear of tobacco companies talking of turning them over to food production!

Perhaps tobacco companies can take a lesson from Sasol, which is talking of moving into green energy. Yes, that polluter par excellence Sasol. It’s still early days yet but if Sasol can change, anyone can. Instead of playing the victim and using irresponsible arguments to sell their toxic product, the tobacco industry should imagine its role in a different future.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Chris Chatteris SJ
Chris Chatteris is a Jesuit priest who is the handyman at the Seminary in Cape Town, combining the tradition of the ‘worker priest’ with teaching and spiritual direction of seminarians. On the handyman side his current project is to ‘green’ the seminary and he has installed such things as heat pumps, rain tanks and recycling systems. He does some writing, last year authoring a book entitled Vocations and what to do with them, a handbook for vocations directors. He also writes a monthly column for the Southern Cross reflecting on the Pope’s intentions, plus occasional other articles elsewhere. Chris was born in Zambia and went to Jesuit schools in both Zimbabwe and Britain and, having been unable to beat them, joined them in 1968. He studied philosophy, theology, French and education, and spent a very formative time in France. Chris has taught in French and British schools and worked in British and South African parishes, including a mission in KZN at the time of the transition from apartheid to normality. He has also worked as the novice director of Jesuits, in the theological formation of young religious at St Joseph’s Theological Institute, Cedara and, briefly, at the Jesuit Institute.

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