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Big Anti-Tobacco?

Those with vested interests in smoking cessation somehow avoid scrutiny. Hmm.

by
Theodore Dalrymple

Bio

December 25, 2011 - 12:00 am

When does an interest become vested? Generally, I suppose, when it is an interest in something of which you disapprove. No one would suggest, for example, that an oncologist had a vested interest in cancer merely because cancer was the sine qua non of his calling. Only those who derive an income from the sale of carcinogens have interests that are vested.

Of these, the greatest is tobacco: almost by definition, no one can have a vested interest in the reduction of smoking. Or can he?

A recent small item in The Lancet, written or at least signed by fourteen authors, protests the decision of the Dutch government to close down — presumably as a budgetary saving measure — its “world-renowned national centre on tobacco control, STIVORO” (hands up, all those who have heard of it). Moreover, the government has likewise decided not to provide medical assistance to those who say they cannot give up smoking, though there are nearly 20,000 premature deaths caused annually by smoking in the Netherlands.

A higher proportion of the Dutch population smokes than average for a developed country (27 percent), and fewer Dutch people are aware of secondhand, or second-lung, smoke — that breathed in from other people’s tobacco — than any other comparable country.

It is certainly true that, in my observation, the Dutch break their own anti-smoking laws more than any other people. Bars in Amsterdam openly advertise that they have bars for smokers, though it is against the law to have them. In nowhere else known to me is the law so openly flouted in this way: I suppose years of equivocation about smoking cannabis have conditioned the orderly Dutch to regard the law as a moveable feast. Let your “yea” be “maybe,” and your “nay” be “perhaps.”

At the bottom of the item in The Lancet is a brief declaration of the interests of the authors:

RW receives research funding and undertakes consultancy for companies that manufacture smoking cessation medications. MCW is a senior researcher at STIVORO.

Since correspondence on the item is to be addressed to RW, it may be assumed that he was at least one of the moving spirits of the protest.

It seems to be beyond the imagination of anti-smoking campaigners that someone might support the right to smoke on grounds of principle and not of narrow personal interest. The item, brief as it is, gives a flavor of the often bile-filled writing of anti-smoking campaigners:

It would be a matter of no little shame to a country that prides itself on a compassionate and inclusive ethos if its government were to abandon smokers to their fate. Every death that ensued would not just be the responsibility of the tobacco industry, which continues to promote its lethal product, but also of every politician in the Dutch Government who chose to look the other way and allow it to happen.

What of the responsibility of the smokers themselves?

Of this, not a word: they are putty in the hands of the tobacco companies and their government, scarcely human in fact. Apparently, Dutch smokers would stop if they knew about the effects of secondhand smoke, which are harmful additionally to first-hand smoke. A strange psychology indeed!

What if someone wrote a theoretical defense of the right to smoke, but put at the end that he had received money from the tobacco companies and indeed was employed by them? A cry of “vested interest!” would deafen.

Let me declare my interests: I have no shares in tobacco companies, I detest smoking and support the ban in public places, with the proviso that there should be places indoors, including restaurants and bars, where smokers can go and freely indulge their filthy habit.

Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His new book is Second Opinion: A Doctor's Notes from the Inner City.
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