Big Tobacco: A threat to Australian democracy

The news that the tobacco industry is seeking to abuse Freedom of Information legislation to gain access to surveys of Australian teenage attitudes to smoking confirms what has been obvious for a long time. The tobacco industry is a threat to democracy. Among its many hostile actions
* Misusing ISDS and other provisions of trade treaties to undermine domestic health policy
* Debasing public debate through the use of scientists for hire, fraudulent lobby groups and thinktanks, vexatious litigation and other tactics. In the use, these actions have led to criminal racketeering. The denialist apparatus set up by the tobacco industry was taken over by the fossil fuel lobby to promote global warming denialism
* Large scale purchasing of politicians and political parties

The big question is, what should be done about this? We need to consider a comprehensive approach to drug policy, which would also take account of the failure of the War on Drugs, and provide a model for legalisation of currently illegal drugs. That rules out prohibition of tobacco, but would leave no role for corporate pushers.

Even if we don’t get there immediately, it’s highly desirable to start the discussion. Big Tobacco and its friends should be warned there is something to lose from attacking democratic government.

29 thoughts on “Big Tobacco: A threat to Australian democracy

  1. Are big tobacco so different to other corporations beyond the fact that they have been embattled and their core business has been threated and so has adapted like any good organism on the principle – its not personal its just good business. There are many other industries existing emerging or legitimized who would likely react (or are already doing so) in the same way if their models were similarly threatened if we acted to seriously acted to restrain the enormous damage on society they are doing through their business models. e.g.:

    – the alcohol industry – that other great drug vice
    – the gambling industry – utilizing our natural internal addiction propenties
    – the fossil fuel industry – nice brothers, the Kochs
    – the forestry industry – decimation of tropical rainforests
    – the miners – whose propaganda is legendary
    – the finance industry – thanks for 2008 and destruction of protecting legislation
    – the arms industry – anyone remember Basil Zaharoff the merchant of death
    – the junk food industry – anyone for increasing predisposition to rotten teeth, heart failure, diabetes, sleep apnoea etc.?
    – the IT industry – Big Brother realized
    – big Pharma and Health corporations – profiting from sickness without end.
    – the PR and legal industries whose bread and butter is mostly based on cynical leveraging
    – and a host of academic communities

    The only difference leaving aside that these others are more tolerated on the basis of providing some kind of social benefit – like social drinking or mindless feeding of slot machine – its our free choice….is they are temporarily comfortable with their returns, their impacts are less acutely visible or more subtle and they are not threatened by the people voting with their feet. Reflecting increasing awareness of how damn stupid smoking is.

    Of course none of their products are terribly evil per se – trees are a great recyclable building material, we need minerals for sustainability like rare earths for LED bulbs, a little gambling stimulation is fun and intellectually stmulating and there is nothing like a beer at the pub overlooking a beautiful waterway.

    But the drive as with all capitalist enterprises is to grow or die or be supplanted by revolutionary technology. So these enterprises are no satisfied with satisfying social need and no more and so their product pushing has grown beyond sane boundaries driven by the demand for profit not social benefit.

    So in answer to the question – of what should be done about tobacco? – a change is needed in our economic system more generally whereby the Sleepers Wake. Sadly though as the Greeks have shown recently we have been asleep so long its probably too late this side of collapse.

  2. I’m staunchly anti-tobacco, but I’m also stauchly anti-prohibitionist when it comes to people’s choices with what they put in their bodies. I’m not sure that there’s a simple answer to the “War on Drugs” but I am comvinced that punishing the users is not the answer. This leaves two immediate and very different strategies:

    1) education, and

    2) making the sale (rather than the use) of tobacco and certain other drugs illegal, or tightly regulated with heavy penalties outside of regulated distribution. Of course there will inevitably be loopholes, so the focus should be on those who produce to make profit from others rather than for themselves.

    Having said this I will also note that there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that Anglo countries as they stand would ever consider moving the focus to the distributors, as there’s too much political milage to be made from the conservative sector of the electorate and from the vested interests who favour the status quo.

  3. I think big tobacco has already more or less lost in Australia — at present only 13.3% of Australians 18+ smoke, and many of these are presumably immigrants who have come from places smoking is far more prevalent and older people who will never give up after being addicted for decades. This suggests our current structures work well for something so obviously bad for you, and that long term campaigning by the government works for this type of thing (ads, information, plain packaging etc.) without more extreme measures being needed.

  4. What’s to be done?

    Tony Abbott will ask ‘Whose side are they on?’ and and promise some leaks to the Tele to get them on board.

    George Brandis will splutter ‘Big Tobacco is using legal vigilantism to delay the Australian community health project’, and he will introduce amendments accordingly.


  5. JQ – “should be warned there is something to lose from attacking democratic government.”

    I don’t know, that seemed to work out fine for the mining lobby.

  6. John, I am as outraged as you seem to be. Big Tobacco does not have our best interests at heart, so we are better off without them. Keep the plain packaging, bung up the taxes. Tell them to go to buggery.

  7. I agree. Furthermore, absolute dishonesty in aggressive business has flowed through to politics, if that consolidates then we become like so many other failing economies.

  8. One problem is the nexus between corporations and governments where there are supposed to be tensions between their interests but more commonly they find some form of accommodation that generally goes in the corporations’ favour.

    The issue of ‘chop-chop’ (‘illegal’ tobacco) is a good example. The “crime”, and associated criminality, has nothing much to do with the evils of smoking and an awful lot to do with money – unsurprisingly.

    Some info:

    Several factors combined to accelerate the growth of the black market in home-grown tobacco in the late 1990s. The dismantling of the Tobacco Industry Stabilisation Plans after 1995 allowed Australian tobacco manufacturers to source tobacco leaf from the international market, putting downward pressure on the price of Australian leaf and leading to problems with oversupply. The abolition of individual state business franchise fees (state-levied tobacco taxes) in 1997, the change from charging federal excise on a weight basis to a per cigarette basis in 1999, and the introduction of the federal goods and services tax in 2000 lead to a uniform tax regime on tobacco throughout Australia and a significant increase in excise collections from tobacco. Obtaining tobacco illicitly, avoiding the tax and providing the product to the end user at a discount was highly profitable activity.

    Chop-chop typically entered the market via individuals or groups that purchased leaf directly from a tobacco grower, processed it for sale, and provided it to a range of retailers (such as tobacconists, market stallholders, hairdressers, newsagents and milk bars) for on-selling. The product was usually sold in half or one kilogram lots, packed into clear plastic bags in loose leaf form, but has also been found converted into readymade cigarettes and presented in counterfeit tobacco packaging. According to a news report just prior to the closure of the Victorian tobacco growing industry, tobacco farmers could earn up to $10 000 per bale of tobacco on the illicit market, compared to a top price of $800 the same bale would fetch on the legal market; the same bale would yield $30 000 in excise for the Federal Government. Bypassing the government, tobacco companies and retailers also meant considerable savings for the end user, who could purchase 100 g of illegal tobacco for about $13, compared to a recommended retail price for the equivalent legal product of about $36. In 2005, tobacco excise accounted for about 55% of the final retail price of a cigarette, and goods and services tax a further 10%.

    From a source that has a stake in the discussion, but still…

  9. @conrad

    Exactly right. The combination of regulation and high taxes have had their intended effect.

    The challenge to the plain packaging laws * has little to do with Australia and a lot to do with stopping governments in other countries introducing the same laws.

    * Where the Australian laws were found to be lawful in a 6-1 High Court decision. The one dissent was from, but of course, Dyson Heydon.

  10. Those particular things are no more “abuse”, “misuse” or a “threat to democracy” than any use of such general protections by those with unsavoury agendas or backgrounds. As someone once pointed out, the test of commitment to (say) free speech isn’t when you protect someone whose views you agree with but when you do so even for others. And remember that Man for all Seasons dialogue about tearing down every law to get at the Devil, rebutted by asking what shelter there would then be when the Devil turned on the tearer …

    But that should show you that the problem as stated is badly framed, and so discouraging fulfilling such agendas (stipulating for the sake of argument that that is desirable) should be done in other ways. A bumper sticker comes to mind: “Crime wouldn’t pay if the government ran it”. That is just precisely what the French have done in this area, nationalising tobacconism and unifying it with the postal service as a profit centre piggybacked on that’s facilities and outlets in the form of Bureaux de Poste et de Tabac. Given Australia Post’s current need to reinvigorate itself, that option at least bears being scrutinised.

    Persons fearing regulatory capture, Rum Corps fashion, and invoking public choice theory cannot do so with intellectual honesty if they already believe that governments have the moral standing to pass judgments on such as these in the first place (which is basically what that stipulation above, for the sake of argument, was about – those who accept that more strongly, as a premise, are barred from objecting that such power would be unsafe in such hands).

  11. I recommend Naomi Oreske’s and Erik Conway’s “The Merchants of Doubt” for a great description of the venal tactics of “Big Tobacco” against health and the environment

  12. Look.

    What sort of sane and reasonable person would willingly work for a tobacco company? Particularly in a PR or management area: there’s lots of other jobs out there, so the people who work at Tobacco are the ones who can’t or won’t get jobs elsewhere.

    Organisational culture can shape itself to be a self-perpetuating tangle of abuse. Any organisation — happens to charities a fair bit — but the external dynamics on tobacco are such that you’d be surprised if you got any other result.

  13. You are completely deluded PML.

    The tactics that Abbott used to get elected were right out of the tobacco marketing toolbox. The use of key supporters ie Maurice Newman as ABC executive who could smooth the way for Abbott to have an hour a day of prime retiree television viewing time (out of the sight of the rest of the viewing public); the extensive use of miss information and sloganeering ie the “toxic tax” plus the undermining of the Global Warming message; the message alignment with a respected community group ie the business community; and the extensive use of repetition ie the toxic tax slogan was repeated as many as 100 times per session. This one corrupt mechanism on its own handed Abbott the election, and it was paid for by the public via the ABC.

    Rat cunning is not what we need for leadership and that election clearly demonstrated how extensive greed distorts and damages democracy. The other example in the same election was the mining industry’s self interested campaign to kill the mining tax. Having protected themselves by moving their profits offshore by exactly the same mechanism that global consortia routinely do in many countries, they still set about killing off the tax anyway.

    That last election was the best reason to never consolidate government to the federal level and eliminate the state governments, however economically advantageous that may seem.

  14. A key issue is that Big tobacco are targeting kids – its their best hope of hanging onto a fading market. These firms have lied their heads off since the 1950s. They always knew smoking caused cancers as their internal experiments on animals showed it did. They always knew that nicotine was addictive since their marketing campaigns relied on addicting new groups of smokers. Yet on both these issues they consistently lied even before US Senate hearings. They are now lying about plain packaging and are, in fact, seeking to addict a new generation of kids.

    One point that I think is worthwhile realizing is that, until fairly recently, Big Tobacco have been successful liars and have run rings around regulators. Governments now need to maintain a toughness that refuses to give in to a new set of anti-social lies.

  15. As I’ve said elsewhere, while I’m staunchly against tobacco products and the companies that create them, I think that anonymised data which is used as research inputs for government policy should be available to others upon request (at the least); if not available, then it is impossible for other researchers to check and challenge the conclusions drawn in the first place.

    I agree that there is a severe ethical failing, given the likely purposes for FOI on the data by the tobacco company, but we always knew they were and are vacuums of moral behaviour. On balance, I think if the research data is claimed to support a particular conclusion, and that then feeds into public policy, it is in the public interest for anonymised data to be available to other legitimate government researchers upon request. It isn’t necessarily in the public interest for a particular enterprise to have access to the data beyond the final published research articles.

  16. Perhaps we should be asking if Big Mining is a threat to democracy in Australia. It’s membership and leadership needs to break ranks on Coal and face climate responsibility honestly and squarely.

  17. Big Tobacco and Big Mining would be a threat to democracy if we had it. However, we do not have anything approaching true democracy. Almost every business in an autocracy. Workers spend their working lives under autocratic rule in the workplace every day. Such a society is not and can never be democratic in any genuine sense.

  18. @Ikonoclast

    Agree, but there is definitely something brewing on the “democracy” front throughout the US/neo-liberal empire (opinion piece by Seumas Milne):

    “The Guardian” – What is taking place in the Labour party is a democratic explosion unprecedented in British political history. Last week more than 168,000 registered to vote in Labour’s leadership election – on one day. About 400,000 people have applied to join Labour as members or supporters since May, tripling the size of the party to more than 600,000.

    Overwhelmingly, it’s the response to one candidate standing for the Labour leadership: the veteran backbench campaigner Jeremy Corbyn. When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 he promised to recruit 1 million members, but never got much beyond 400,000. Corbyn has sailed past him in weeks.

    Not only that, but the leftwinger is now runaway favourite to win the contest. In the most recent poll, Corbyn was scoring 53% on first preferences, 32 points ahead of his nearest challenger. And 32% of the public say they would be more likely to back Labour under Corbyn, seven points more than any other candidate.

    After years of handwringing about declining participation in party politics, you might imagine the political class would be delighted at this grassroots surge. Not a bit of it. The political and media establishment has linked arms to resist it. This is one of Her Majesty’s parties of government, after all. The idea of it falling into the care of someone outside the boundaries of political acceptability is unthinkable. …..

    Labor is probably a lost cause in Australia, but the same sentiment is out here in the real world. We’ll see, but there are promising signs.

  19. The program offered by the fictional Health Minister (who expects it to wipe out the tobacco companies) in the first season of Yes Prime Minister (but derailed there) has five points:
    a complete ban on all sponsorship by tobacco companies;
    a complete ban on all advertising, including at the point of sale;
    a fifty-million-pound anti-smoking publicity campaign;
    a complete ban on smoking in all public places;
    progressive deterrent tax increases over five years, until a packet of twenty costs about as much as a bottle of whisky.

    I wonder how that compares with what’s actually happened since, in the UK, or here, or anywhere else.

  20. Pr Q sid:

    The big question is, what should be done about this? We need to consider a comprehensive approach to drug policy, which would also take account of the failure of the War on Drugs, and provide a model for legalisation of currently illegal drugs. That rules out prohibition of tobacco, but would leave no role for corporate pushers.

    Home-grown tobacco? DIY Meth labs? Crack distributed at the local pharmacy? I spent a fair bit of time in the US in the early nineties fag end of the Crack Wars, before Zero Tolerance, Broken Windows and Three Strikes and Youre Out started to bite. The Bedford-Stuy Drug Supermarkets and sporadic gun fire coming from Crown Heights disabused me of the last vestiges of my adolescent liberal illusions.

    BTW The War on Drugs has not “failed”. Thats just a “liberal” talking point, as disingenous as most liberal polemics since our hegemonial ideology triumphed over History in 1991 – which turned out to be a temporary peak, not a permanent plateau.

    There are of course still heavy drug users, particularly among disadvantaged communities (US white working class, indigenous, mentally ill, African-ancestry). But pointing to those unfortunates and saying “War on Drugs – Fail!” makes as much sense as pointing to the weekly blotter at the local police precinct and saying “War on Crime – Fail!

    Legalizing drugs would simply consolidate their misery. Anyone who has visited remote indigenous communities knows that legalising drugs would end any slim hope of indigenous Australians “closing the gap”.

    In any case the War on Drugs in the G7 is going well enough, all things considered. Illegal drug use has been in secular decline in most of the G7 for most of the post-Cold War period.* The UK is a well-studied case in point, analogous to AUS, as reported by Guardian:

    A generational shift away from drugs may be under way, addiction experts suggested today, as figures showed that illegal substances were declining in popularity among all age groups.

    Fewer people in England and Wales are taking drugs such as cannabis, cocaine or heroin, according to an NHS survey, which confirmed that use was down in every age group from 11- to 59-year-olds. Twenty percent of 16- to 25-year-olds used illegal drugs in 2009-10, down from 22.6% the year before, and well below the 29.7% recorded in 1996. Similarly, the proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who have ever used a banned substance has fallen from 29% in 2001 to 22% last year.

    The survey found 8.6% of those aged 16 to 59, or 2.8 million people, were using illicit substances in 2009-10 – the lowest ever figure since drug-taking trends were first monitored in 1996, down from 10.1% in 2008-09, 11.1% in 1996 and the record 12.3% in 2003-04.

    The main reason for this decline is that the experience of the 60s-90s showed that hard drug use was for losers and the post-Cold War era is short on sympathy for un-forced error makers. Any one taking a stroll down Venice Beach soon realises this. Job market drug testing has made drug use a Career Ending Move. Not a good look on Your Permanent Record.

    The legal sanction against drugs is a critical part of the delegitimation of hard drug use as the law represents society’s minimal moral expectation. (It also provides a way for law-enforcement agencies to build a forensic case against suspected bad guys without having to rely on potentially intimidatable witnesses.) The Age reports that the chronic presecription drugs use is the one form of drug abuse on the increase which lead to a massive rise in overdose fatalities:

    More Victorians are dying from overdoses involving prescription drugs than are killed in road accidents, according to the state coroner’s office.
    According to the coroner’s office, 384 deaths were attributed to drugs and alcohol in 2014, up from 342 in 2010. The state’s total overdose death toll has risen for the fifth consecutive year, and compares with the 2014 Victorian road toll of 248 people killed.
    The findings also highlight how prescription drugs in general, and benzodiazepines in particular, consistently contribute to more deaths than either illicit drugs or alcohol. Prescription drugs were found to have contributed to the deaths in more than 82 per cent of the 384 cases investigated by forensic pathologists. Illicit drugs were found to have contributed to 42 per cent of all fatal overdoses, and alcohol was found to have contributed to nearly one in four deaths, although many overdose deaths involved more than one substance.

    The nation state inevitably uses the law to define normality. It should not make drug use normal.
    More importantly, chronic use of hard drugs is intrincically immoral. Even utilitarian liberals acknowledge that it is a form of self-harm that has massively adverse third-party effects. Hard drug use diables human moral faculties at their core:

    Cognition: A sound mind is lost to the drug user who is “out of it”.
    Volition: Free will is not an option to the addict enslaved to “the monkey on his back”.
    Affection: Good will to all men is in short supply to those blowing family pay on dope.

    Fundamental moral considerations will become vital as AI drives the economic system slowly over the human event horizon. Its likely that advanced societies, within the lifetimes of people alive today, will be standing at the edge of the Huxley-Fermi abyss. May I suggest that we stop pushing for legalization of drugs so we can enjoy life as functioning moral agents just a little bit longer, before we take the plunge into the hedonic Matrix?

    * Portugal is not a success story in decriminalization. It was pushing on an open door.

  21. @Jack Strocchi

    In the US under Prohibition, consumption of alcohol fell! The policy was a success! Why was it ever abandoned? Anybody who has ever visited remote native American communities knows how much damage alcohol consumption causes. Legalising alcohol only consolidated misery. Even utilitarian liberals admit that chronic use of alcohol is a form of self-harm that has massively adverse third-party effects.

  22. I agree with Newtonian and BilB.

    The problem is much bigger and more widespread than legalised drugs. Or, should I say, addiction is not limited to substances that can be inhaled, swallowed or injected.

    Some people are addicted to debt, not only individuals but entire ‘schools of thought’. Debt is incurred by some people because they want to buy something now rather than later. Debt finance is used by corporations to ‘grow’ by buying up other businesses. And ‘growth’ is considered desirable to solve unemployment, debt financed government expenditure is recommended, again and again. But net debt growth, which is the outcome of this addiction, is nothing else beside bringing forward in time the use of natural resources. Economic growth is an addiction. The corporate form of business is a useful vehicle to relieve individuals from any personal responsibility because it is no longer their personal preferences which are relevant but it is the ‘growth of the business’ by whatever means. Newtonian’s list is relevant, as is BilB’s observation.

    Big Tobacco was studied after Big Oil. Now there are so many Bigs that, IMO, it is getting quite clear it is the corporate form of business that is a problem. The workplace arrangements of Amazone, as reported in the press recently, indicate to me a stage of fanatism or obsession has been reached.

  23. “Anyone who has visited remote indigenous communities knows that legalising drugs would end any slim hope of indigenous Australians “closing the gap”.”

    “Any one taking a stroll down Venice Beach soon realises this. ”

    Jack gets around doesn’t he?

    and this:

    “Job market drug testing has made drug use a Career Ending Move. Not a good look on Your Permanent Record.”

    Authoritarianism? It’s is in their genes and don’t they love applying it to the others.

  24. @Ernestine Gross

    I agree on all of that.

    Debt finance is one important issue. I hope I can use this occasion to ask a question. Various schools of economics argue about money printing and macroeconomic stimulus (budget deficits) from various angles. It seems to me (in my naivety) that there are currently two important ways to create money. One is by government deficit financing (crudely “printing money”) and the other is by loan making. Stop me if any of my assumptions are wrong and/or answer my final questions if possible.

    Fiat money can be created by fiat (unfinanced deficits) and destroyed by fiat (unspent surpluses). Debt money is created by loans. While the debt money is balanced by the debt on the loan book, there is no net increase in assets in the economy. However, there is an increase in circulating money supply. Debt money is not extinguished until the loan is repaid. While the loan or part of it is outstanding the debt money circulates. In the economy is expanding and loans are increasing then loan making equals net money creation.

    How does it make sense to have government budget austerity combined with rampant loan making in the finance sector? In a growing economy with a growing loan book, does this not equate to money printing which is simply done by the private sector? If one needs to control excess budget deficits does one not also need to properly control loan making by the private sector? Are our financial regulations and controls adequate in this arena?

  25. > Authoritarianism? It’s is in their genes and don’t they love applying it to the others.

    Black-and-white thinking and lack of empathy / seeing stuff from the perspective of others.

    Why, I wonder what might possibly cause that sort of thinking?

    Which is, yes, genetic.

  26. @Collin Street

    Off topic but Nah it’s environment; if there were genes that determined that this sort of personality is hard wired unalterable feature of human ‘nature’, these genes would have been eliminated by now being as they are so dysfunctional for human cultures.

    Psychopath genes can be very useful for the group if the person with them is properly socialised. Even if one does not have genes for empathy or understanding others, social intelligence, people like this can learn to understand that the other is a real thing that matters, in an abstract or cognitive conceptualisation. When this is not present in the family or social environment children do not develop this ability.

    Anecdote alert. This is just one of the ways that spoiled children who grow up to be unable to understand that other people matter, are not taught to care about their own behaviour. At the preschool group there were two kids, a boy and a girl playing and the boy gets a bit rough and the mother of the bossy boy says to the mother of the girl – you better take her away before he hurts her.

  27. It is absolutely clear that there is no way a ‘war on drugs’ could be won at a cost society could or ought to pay. Victory, even were it achievable: i.e ubiquitous compliance with the state’s mores on self-medication for mood — would be pyrrhic. The state would perforce have to invade every private space at enormous cost both to personal integrity and other programs (see opportunity cost thread).

    Even then, it’s likely that one of the ways in which privilege would be defined would be through the scope to flout state controls. The police would be even more corrupt than at present and the means of blackmailing people would be much enlarged, much as was the case when homosexuality was illegal. The prisons would be even more overcrowded than they are now, and these largely with folk from the bottom two to four deciles. Productivity would be down because people in jail tend not to be very productive.

    No — the time is long overdue to abandon this fool’s errand and create legal means for people to self-medicate for mood, through resort to agents that are relatively innocuous — or at any rate no more noxious within a legal regime than cigarettes or alcohol.

    This need neither be costly nor difficult to administer in practice and for as long as other jurisdictions remained recalcitrant on policy, likely to be strongly revenue positive. Many overseas visitors would come here if there were legal, TGA-approved preparations to achieve the kinds of mood people who are so inclined seek to achieve. There would be good export markets too, as jurisdictions like Colorado move towards legalisation.

    Throw in savings in police staff hours, reduced imprisonment and improved productivity and what we have in this harm minimisation policy is a program where nearly everyone is a winner. I say nearly, because the existing tobacco and alcohol industries stand to lose a great deal.

    Sadly, moral panic, once raised, is hard to staunch, and the madness that marks current policy is likely to persist for some time.

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