War on Smoking

By | Updated June 2, 2016 4:38 PM UTC

In the 20th century, tobacco use killed an estimated 100 million people — more than both world wars combined. Most of those smokers had no idea what they were doing to themselves. Tobacco’s deadliness was exposed more than 50 years ago but still one in five adults smokes. If this continues, tobacco use could kill a billion people this century as the population expands. The war on tobacco has been raging for decades in the most developed countries but has barely begun elsewhere. From 1980 to 2013, smoking rates fell by almost two-thirds in the Americas but by only about half as much in Africa and a third as much in the Middle East. The habit has actually gained popularity in China.

The Situation

The newest battle in the tobacco wars is over plain packaging, which threatens the profits of cigarette makers by impairing their ability to earn a premium on upmarket brands. Tobacco companies are fighting laws that requires cigarettes to be sold in a brown wrapper largely covered by graphic health warnings. The U.K., Ireland and France have followed Australia’s lead in passing these laws. The governments of New Zealand and Norway have asked lawmakers to enact plain packaging, and Canada's government has committed to doing so. The European Union's Court of Justice ruled in May that member states were free to regulate beyond an EU requirement that health warnings cover 65 percent of cigarette packaging. In the U.K., the law took effect later that month, after companies lost a lawsuit claiming destruction of their trademarks and violation of trade rules. Australia’s highest court rejected a challenge to the law in 2012 but companies are still fighting it in tribunals under the auspices of the World Trade Organization. The high cost of defending against such suits is one reason poorer nations, home to 80 percent of the world’s smokers, have enacted few and relatively weak tobacco-control regulations, according to public health groups. One noteworthy exception: in China, where 44 percent of all cigarettes are smoked, the national legislature banned smoking in public places as of June 2015.

The Background

Tobacco was chewed and smoked by native Americans for centuries before Italian explorer Christopher Columbus brought it to Europe in the 1400s. Smoking became widespread after the invention of a cigarette-rolling machine in 1881. In both world wars, millions of U.S. troops were given free cigarettes, causing smoking and lung cancer cases to soar. In 1964, the first report by a U.S. surgeon general on smoking warned the public of links to cancer and heart disease. Bans on tobacco advertising followed on both sides of the Atlantic. Anti-tobacco sentiment surged in the U.S. after tobacco company executives told Congress in 1994 that they didn’t believe cigarettes were addictive, and that evidence linking them to deadly disease was inconclusive. Just a few years later, the companies agreed to pay a total of about $206 billion over 25 years to compensate governments for smoking-related Medicaid expenses and to fund programs to reduce youth smoking. In 2003, a Florida appeals court overturned a $145 billion judgment against the companies in a class-action suit filed by smokers, leading to thousands of smaller legal challenges. An increasing awareness of the hazards of second-hand smoke has led to bans on smoking in enclosed spaces in numerous jurisdictions around the world. Tobacco taxes, long a means of raising government revenue, increasingly have been used to discourage smoking.

The Argument

When it comes to arguments about smoking, there are two main camps: those who prioritize personal liberty and those who prioritize health. Libertarians argue that tobacco-control measures violate smokers’ rights. They consider cigarette taxes overly burdensome, especially for the poor. They say jury awards against tobacco companies are irresponsible because smokers know the risks but light up anyway. And they maintain that government has no business trying to stop individuals from harming themselves. Public health advocates see high taxes as one of a number of effective ways to reduce tobacco use, especially among the poor, who are most sensitive to price increases. They say tobacco companies surreptitiously market cigarettes to impressionable teenagers to get them hooked early. They argue that tobacco rarely affects just the smoker, given the dangers of second-hand smoke and the cost to health-care systems of smoking-related disease.

The Reference Shelf

  • The website Tobacco Atlas, sponsored by The World Lung Foundation and American Cancer Society, offers data on global trends and policies.
  • The Journal of the American Medical Association hosts an interactive history of tobacco in the U.S.
  • A 2005 international treaty, ratified by 180 countries, requires signatories to enact at least minimal tobacco-control measures.
  • The TobaccoTactics database details the tobacco industry’s attempts at influencing public policies.
  • Bloomberg Philanthropies, which supports tobacco-control measures in countries with the highest use, provides information on proven strategies.
  • A related QuickTake explores the debate over e-cigarettes.

First published July 6, 2015

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Sam Chambers in London at schambers7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net