In the last decade, many attempts to limit the use of cigarettes have been made by international bodies and governments to curb the dangerous effects of smoking. Many claims nicotine is a highly addictive substance, both mentally and physically, and its consumption through tobacco cigarettes should be made illegal by authorities. However, is it right to regulate the “right of pleasure”?
Axel Klein is a social anthropologist with a strong interest in mind altering substances, the social rituals surrounding their consumption and the political frameworks to control and repress them. He has published studies on medical cannabis in the UK, the production and use of khat and on drugs, drug trafficking and politics of control in the Caribbean and West Africa. Working as a consultant he has provided expert advice to inter alia the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the UK Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the African Union. He is currently a Senior Research Associate with the Global Drug Policy Observatory at the University of Swansea and the editor of the journal Drugs and Alcohol Today.
Mr Klein, how would you define the use (and the abuse) of tobacco in our societies?
In 16th century Sevilla a sailor was arrested by the Inquisition for blowing out smoke, which was taken as a sign of being in league with the devil. At that time there was no word for “smoking” in English, where people talked of ‘tobacco drinking’ or ‘fogging’. Tobacco appeared quite suddenly in Europe as part of what historians have sardonically called the Colombian exchange. As with so much of the plunder that came back from Europe’s expansion overseas, tobacco was adapted and quickly acculturated. Inhaled as snuff, or smoked in pipes and cigars, tobacco became established as one of the good things in life, something that produced pleasure without interfering with the ability to think or move. In the late 19th century, the cigarette, produced with new machinery on an industrial scale, brought it within reach of the working poor. It needs to be remembered that in Europe tobacco, as the reward of conquest, had arrived as a secular product, without any of the spiritual connections that obtained in the Americas where tobacco was first cultivated. In the absence of religious sanction or social custom to regulate its use, the only barrier to consumption was cost. And new production methods coupled with the vast expansion of tobacco cultivation were lowering these dramatically. Couple that with the ingenious advertising campaigns unleashed in the early 20th century and tobacco use became epidemic. If we look back at the period, in stills and films, we find people smoking in every social situation at any time of day. It is this detachment of consumption from setting and context that marks the particular problem of cigarette consumption. Because we must be clear, it is not tobacco, but the delivery vehicle, the cigarette that lies at the root of our public health problems. And we can, if we wish, spin this a bit wider and become a little more speculative by saying that it is the particular combination of a powerful, habit forming substance, with the aggressive salesmanship that has is the hallmark of capitalist economies. Such reasoning leads the medical specialists outside their professional domain, so explanations are restricted, and the response then truncated. It is easier to condemn a product and call for a ban than to locate the malaise within the system. And yet, we need to take holistic approaches that take account of the multi-factorial complexity instead of reducing our model to the simplistic mono-causality of a substance driven health problematic.
Do you agree with whom suggests nicotine needs to be rated as an illegal substance?
To me such proposals illustrate how deeply some tobacco activists have sunk into the isolation of their own echo-chamber. Advocates for such a ban may believe this to be a suitable punishment for the tobacco industry, or what has polemically called Big Tobacco. Their anger is understandable given the scandalous way that the industry has behaved over the years, with its crass details of evidence and blatant lying and misinformation. And yet, anger about historic harms should not be the basis for health policy. Making substances that are hugely popular and that give people great pleasure should not be made illegal. We are have learnt to our terrible cost from the disaster of the war on drugs what the consequences of illegality are – the drugs become more dangerous, the drug dealers grow into an industry and the law enforcement apparatus becomes systematically corrupted. Just as we slowly drag ourselves to normalising cannabis – with the political establishment and all the professional beneficiaries of prohibition kicking and screaming in protest – there are zealots shouting for a ban on tobacco. If their call is heeded then we will find ourselves a decade from now being able to smoke a joint provided it is rolled from cannabis only, but you may get arrested for mixing it with tobacco.
Really, we should be more sensible and leave our past times and pleasures to the informed decision of adult consumers, not the arbitrary intervention of the police. There simply should be no state imposed blanket prohibition on any substance and to advocate this is irresponsible.
Harm Reduction and Public Health: what should be the policies to follow for an effective “regulation of pleasure”?
Yes to both plus consumer rights. We always have to balance the well-being of individual with social harmony but in our contemporary society the individual is really at the heart of decision making. So, she needs to have all the information available in an accessible form. In Europe manufacturers are required to list the ingredients on food stuff or possible adverse reactions on pharmaceutical products. In my mind this should be a lot more detailed and we can use the opportunity of revising our engagement with tobacco to spearhead a reform that puts the consumer at the centre. Policy should be designed to offer the individual in the best possible situation to balance costs and benefits and act accordingly. A flawed model, in many ways, we know there is no fully rational decision-maker and everybody is swayed by habits, emotions and prejudices. And yet, the alternative of leaving these decisions to the authorities carries all the same shortcomings together with all the pathologies of autocratic decision making. Because we learn from the war on drugs and from alcohol prohibition that repressive measures quickly serve as ends in themselves and very quickly the concern is no longer with public health, the protection of individuals or even the always invoked well being of youth – it is all about justifying policy and the use of power.
So, yes, we should be relaxed about tobacco products and find ways of incorporating them into our social lives. Vaping devices seem to slot neatly into the space vacated by the cigarette. For those who like chewing tobacco there are perfectly safe products like snus, that should be available to every adult. Perhaps there will be a pipe revival, I remember the aroma of pipe tobacco from my youth. But we have to hold on to the lessons we learnt from taming tobacco, the bans on smoking indoors or public spaces, something that should never have been allowed out of courtesy to others. The pleasure of the consumer should not directly impair on the pleasure of others. A principle that we may well apply to other activities and past times.