Letting Africa take the hit

Recent WHO-FCTC declarations regarding restricting tobacco flavorings (and other additives) have raised considerable concern in the African burley growing countries (burley tobacco tends to be processed with additives). Their justification in their own words is

One major cause for concern is flavourings and additives being widely used in cigarettes and other tobacco products to increase their palatability and attractiveness – particularly among young people.

Though no one supports the creation of unwilling users, there is certainly some concern about deliberately making a legal pastime enjoyed by millions less enjoyable. Though this is business as usual when it comes to the treatment of tobacco users, there really is no precedent in any other area of consumption.

There is also no evidence that this will do anything other than reduce the enjoyment of smoking. Surveys have shown that kids do not usually start with flavored products (they start with whatever is at hand). At some level of engagement, people are pretty resilient. (Even very particular coffee drinkers will settle for substandard products rather than forgo their drink and most people knowingly eat sub-par food quite regularly.) Smokers who do not have their brand available will usually buy another; at the extreme smokers in prison have been known to roll up patches and smoke them. So all flavor restrictions are likely to do is make tobacco users (because this will affect smokeless tobacco users too) less happy.

Outside of tobacco control, that is known as sadism.

But let’s say just for a minute that the evidence is all wrong and this could really change the world and fewer people would smoke. Given that the developed world is most attuned to quality products, one would expect the greatest drops there. (As a rule, the more money you make and education you have, the less likely you are to smoke and if you do smoke, the more likely you are to quit.) So you have a “reasonable” justification that fewer people will smoke as a result.

And let’s say that this destroys the market for burley tobacco. That is, it is no longer a viable crop for African farmers. Though the FCTC and anti-smoking NGOs suggest they should just take up alternative crops the problem here is that while they are globally competitive in burley, they would be at a disadvantage with any other crop, not to mention that given the characteristics of the soil, only certain crops will grow there in the first place. (Tobacco is a plant that flourishes under conditions where many other plants do not.)

And would the FCTC even dare to proceed in this fashion if this were a developed world industry (this smacks of global paternalism in the worst way). Consider that in Malawi (just one of the nations that would be affected) that burley production comprises 60% of its export revenue and a full 13% of its economy.

Removing (or adjusting to) that portion of the economy of even a strong nation would be momentous but in the case of Malawi where 70% of the nation are already below the poverty line, and where the unemployment rate is a staggering 95% the results of this would be catastrophic.

Even if a burley ban is only a worst case scenario, it is a threat to a country that already is a worst case scenario.

And it seems somewhat immoral to scrabble to add a few more years onto the already long Western average lifespan at the expense of Malawi where the lifespan is under 50. The greatest threat to health is being poor so we could expect a trade here which would result in an even lower average.

What everyone seems to forget in this whole rush to eliminate smoking related disease is that it is actually a sign of great success when smoking related causes lead. What it means is that you have removed high infant mortality, diarrhea, diptheria, cholera, typhoid, and malaria; it means that you are living longer than 50 when most of these luxury conditions kick in.

So as a result of us beating those horrible conditions Malawi is still prey to, we will ask them to bite the bullet so that we can outlive them by even more than the 24 years we already do.

– Paul L. Bergen

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