The Politics of Cigarettes


In the spirit of Easter, I’m sure many people will be trying to quit smoking. Although “the percentage of smokers is declining across the developed world” 1, many struggle to stop. Often rants concerning health and empathy are employed in this battle. However, I believe they’re utterly unconvincing and I will explain why. Fortunately, some hope remains as I’ve collected all the arguments which would convince me to kick the habit if I were an addict. These arguments concern where the money goes and the ideas associated with cigarettes. Shedding some new light on them may help us understand the issue from a new perspective. Hopeful, you too will find them useful or at least interesting.

We don’t feel directly affected by cigarettes

Smoking is bad for you. “About 17,000 children under five years old in England and Wales are admitted to hospital each year due to illnesses caused by their parents’ smoking.” 2 But no one cares. Why? Because the effects of smoking are indirect. For example, the risk of death is approximately four times higher when a pedestrian is hit at 40mph than at 30mph, yet we still drive as fast as the speed limit allows.3 We just don’t think that statistics include us, because they are indirect. To illustrate this further, we are told cigarettes contain poison, but we don’t fall to the ground and suffocate at one puff, so how harmful can it really be? Well, it’s sort of like taking a pill daily to shorten your life span and increase the likelihood of a difficult and unsavoury death. So, I would say quite harmful. 80% of cigarette smoke is invisible. However, people still don’t care, which is why health arguments can be frustratingly ineffective. Although I don’t have a solution to this, I believe economic and political arguments can be more convincing.

Smoke and Mirrors: Are we rebelling or obeying?

Cigarettes are often portrayed as a sign of rebellion. People want to stick it to the man. Live on the edge. Have some control over their lives. But with the government making £12 billion annually from the cigarette tax, how effective is this rebellion? Whenever something is that harmful to you, the reason you are doing it is never really what you think it is. There is always someone profiting from your misfortune, whether it be cigarette companies or the government.

For example, the Red Brigades 4 in Italy was a Marxist terrorist organisation who opposed the government. But what people often don’t realise is that terrorist organisations are business corporations which require and make billions of dollars a year. People who wanted to join the organisation were tested, not to see how knowledgeable they were about Marxism, but to test how good they were at following orders. The head of the organisation was a businessman with his own agenda. Education wasn’t important. People who don’t question their orders were. I’m sure those who were allowed to join the Red Brigades thought they were conscious agents of change, but instead they were just being used to drive the agenda of terrorist business and commit atrocities for this cause. Personally, to devote my life to someone else’s insecure agenda just seems absurd. If an organisation wants change it should at least want literate members who understand the depth and options the ideology brings about. It should allow for discussion to weed out all the flaws, otherwise it is just as unreliable as a dictatorship.

There is a parallel with smoking. I would never argue that smoking should be banned because although I believe it has no benefits to consumers, doing so would infringe on the rights of the people. The only organisations who have anything to gain are the tobacco industry and the government.

In 2010, the combined profits of the six leading tobacco companies was “$35.1 billion”, equal to the combined profits of Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and McDonald’s in the same year. 5

Poorer people are more likely to be victims of addiction

There is also a correlation between socio-economic class and smoking.

“Over recent decades, the overall prevalence of smoking has decreased among men in many countries, whereas among women smoking has remained at the same level or even increased. However, these changes have not happened equally across all population groups. In most industrial societies smoking has increasingly been concentrated among the socio-economically disadvantaged.”6

The role of the government is questionable

I do not wish to support conspiracies against the government; it just seems that they will benefit from the situation either way. If everyone stopped smoking they’d claim their anti-smoking campaigns had been a huge success, whilst if everyone continued smoking they’d be content with the economic gain they are making.

The media convinces us that those who smoke are working-class, uneducated scroungers who cost the taxpayer billions of pounds through the NHS and their smoking related illnesses. They make us inclined to believe those smokers are a burden on society. However, this is far from the truth. The government make £12 billion annually from the cigarette tax, whilst smoking related illnesses only costs the NHS 2 billion pounds a year! Of course there are other costs that the government deduct in their cost benefit analysis, such as “the loss in productivity due to premature deaths (£3bn)” 7. However I have chosen not to consider them because I don’t think the purpose of living is to contribute tax to the government; I’m more concerned that people are missing out on the chance to enjoy their full living potential. We don’t have a right to consider the tax they might continue to contribute if they hadn’t died as an injustice to the government. It just seems strange, vague and unethical. What if the smoker decided to move abroad? In contrast, the NHS is a different matter and is likely to directly affect all citizens at some point in their life. It’s also strange that “social care costs of older smokers (£1.1bn)” 7 are considered in government calculations, yet the money saved in pensions is not.

The example presented in ‘Justice’ by political philosopher Michael Scandal really drills this point home. Philip Morris conducted a cost-benefit analysis in the Czech Republic to convince the government not to raise taxes on cigarettes. Their research showed that although smokers impose higher medical costs whilst alive, they die early, saving the government considerable sums in healthcare, pensions and housing for the elderly. Once the ‘positive’ effects of smoking are considered –including cigarette tax revenues and savings due to premature deaths of smokers- the net gain to the treasury is $147 million per year. The Czech government saved $1,227 as a result of each smoking-related death.

Ultimately, smoking isn’t what it used to be. Personally, I find evidence which demonstrates that I’m giving the government and big corporations’ money for something which is supposed to be an act of rebellion ironic -especially if it’s costing me “£7.46” 9 a pack. Smoking is political tool exploited by the government and industry. Hence, to continue smoking supports this exploitation. The smokers are not to blame, but have the freewill to commit to quitting and fighting their addiction.

Side Note- I considered denouncing the role of the film industry in glamorising tobacco, but I honestly think it is mostly harmless as long as the viewers are old enough to understand the actors aren’t actually smoking, but just appear to be for dramatic effect… All sources of evidence can be found below.