Until relatively recently, Big Tobacco appeared invincible. Despite the fact that tobacco smoke was full of known carcinogens that would have had a factory shut down if they came out of the smokestack, and ample evidence that exposure to tobacco smoke caused cancer, not to mention the violation of liberty associated with blowing smoke in public places, Big Tobacco effectively resisted even the mildest restrictions on its activities. It was aided by a team of scientists and other “experts” willing to claim that the hazards of smoking were non-existent or overstated (notable names here include Enstrom & Kabat, Gio Batta Gori, Richard Lindzen, Steve Milloy, Fred Seitz and Fred Singer – Google has details).
Virtually all the main rightwing thinktanks in the US and Australia went along with this fraud (AEI, Cato, Centre for Independent Studies, CEI, Heartland and IPA among many others). While they might legitimately have argued part of their case on strict libertarian grounds, that would not have been sufficient to resist restrictions on passive smoking. So, they published attacks on science which any reasonable assessment would have shown to be false. In doing so, of course, they encouraged people to take risks with their own lives and those of others, while happily accepting money from the merchants of death. Whether they were knowingly lying, or merely recklessly indifferent to the truth, this episode should have discredited them forever (it certainly has with me).
But the tide has turned. US litigation in the 1990s exposed a treasure trove of internal documents which eventually led to racketeering convictions for the main tobacco companies. And now the High Court has rejected Big Tobacco’s (legally preposterous) challenge to plain packaging legislation in Australia, made on the supposed basis that it represented a taking of intellectual ‘property’. Not satisfied with one preposterous claim, the tobacco companies are planning another, having bribed the government of Ukraine to make a WTO accusation of trade restraint. Actually, this is a good thing. This case is such an obvious abuse of process, and the litigants so clearly evil, that the WTO will surely not be crazy enough to support their case. In rejecting it, they will probably be forced to set precedents that make future interference with domestic health policy more difficult.
Coming to the policy merits, the current legal status of tobacco is, in my view, a pretty good model for drugs in general – legally available, but with all kinds of promotion prohibited and with an active public health campaign to give accurate information on the associated risks.