When smoking finally became recognised as hazardous and became socially more unacceptable, the tobacco companies began to target those whose lives were already exposed to so many dangerous substances that smoking would seem to be an innocuous addition to the pollutants and carcinogens which daily threatened their health.

By Jeremy Seabrook

July 1999

The small comforts of the poor have always been both damaging and addictive. In 19th-century London, for instance, small infants were given opiates to pacify them (and their parents). Gin palaces were the names given to the gaudy drinking-places where the poor stupefied themselves with cheap alcohol. It used to be said that the quickest way out of Manchester or Birmingham (or any other industrial hell-hole) was through the door of the nearest pub.

Many of the consolations of poverty of 19th-century Britain came from crops extracted from the Empire: tea, coffee, chocolate, and especially, tobacco, whether in the form of cigarettes or snuff, contributed in no small way to keeping the people in their leisure time in the same kind of torpor induced by excessive hours of labour.

Quite early in the industrial period, those who made profit out of the poorest sought to set up a collusive alliance with them. For instance, the owners of the breweries were always loudest in their defence of the 'poor man's right to a glass of ale', even when, as a result of too many glasses of ale, the poor man was lying drunk in the gutter and his children were weeping at home for want of food.

Similarly, as literacy spread, those publishing interests which catered to the meanest sensationalism, the producers of 'penny dreadfuls' (that is, tales of murder, violence and brutality), were quick to claim that they were 'giving the people what they wanted', an escape from drudgery and toil. Even the the original inventors of Coca-Cola presented their decoction as a kind of medicine, to fortify the nervous and bring strength to the debilitated; in spite of the fact that it was always 90% sugared water, and contained a liberal quantity of cocaine.

It is not difficult to see in all this the beginnings of the consumer society; primitive, rudimentary, in view of the subsequent growth and development of consumerism, but the principles were already clearly evident from the earliest period of the industrial revolution. It became vital for the capitalists that they not only should appropriate the labour of the people at the cheapest rate, but should ensure that any money left over for expenditure on leisure or relaxation, also be returned to its rightful owners.

In such a context, smoking was regarded as one of the more 'harmless' pleasures of the poor. It relaxed the mind and eased the exhaustion of the long working day. It was easily promoted by the tobacco companies as a beneficent and inoffensive activity. In any case, the sales figures spoke for themselves. The smoke from tobacco appeared to present little danger to workers who laboured in factories where the air was already almost unbreathable, and who lived in houses whose curtains were perpetually grimy from the soot and filth that hung over the manufacturing districts.

The characteristic image of a workman was of a man in a flat cap, collarless shirt, ancient boots, a cigarette burning low on his lips. I remember my own father, his eyes perpetually half-closed against the smoke that rose from the cigarette that burned so low on his lips, it was a wonder they were not scorched by it.

Only later in the 20th century did the harm caused by cigarettes become apparent. Indeed, the baleful effects of substances such as laudanum and opiates and especially alcohol, were the objects of prohibition long before anyone sought to curb the sales of cigarettes. The tobacco companies continued to express their solidarity with the poor who were hooked on their products. They continued to deny the dangers, virtuously defending the wholesome nature of this innocent pastime, even when the evidence became overwhelming.

Predictably, when smoking finally became recognised as hazardous and became socially more and more unacceptable, the tobacco companies began to target those whose lives were already exposed to so many dangerous substances that smoking would seem to be an innocuous addition to the pollutants and carcinogens which daily threatened their health.

Indeed, the poor of Dhaka, Mumbai, Jakarta, the workers of Manila, Johannesburg and Sao Paulo have assumed the smoking habits so recently set aside by a majority of the workers in the West. It is an epic irony that tobacco, a product of Empire, should now be pushed most vigorously by colonising tobacco companies to those who have supposedly freed themselves from the colonial yoke. At the same time, there has been an increase in smoking among the young in the West, especially young women; partly, this is a gesture of social protest: like the taking of drugs, it is the only way in which youthful 'revolt' can express itself, all meaningful political alternatives having been long closed down.

In this way, in spite of the claims made against the tobacco companies, in spite of the public disgracing of their products, their markets are not shrinking. The name of the game is to grow and to expand or die. Clearly, it is the victims of smoking whose lives must be imperilled and forfeited before any threat to the survival and continuing prosperity of the tobacco industry.

Indeed, the companies lose no opportunity to ally themselves with popular causes, in an effort to influence democratic majorities in their defence. They sponsor sporting events (whole-page ads in the New Straits Times of 5 May 1999 advertised the fact that the Manchester-Liverpool match was being brought to the people of Malaysia courtesy of Dunhill). The tobacco companies seek to protect themselves by promoting such life-enhancing activities as cricket, Formula One racing, athletics, opera, ballet and symphony concerts. Doubtless, they hope thereby to recover some of the popularity that has been lost by the millions of people who have witnessed the agonising death of those they love from the effects of smoking.

There are at least two important lessons to be learned by those in the South seeking to attack the power of the tobacco giants. One is that these companies seek to win over popular support by associating themselves with sporting and cultural activities - the implication being, as when Britain threatened to stop all tobacco sponsorship of Formula One racing, that there will be a public outcry which will force the government to rescind its ban. If they cannot stop governments from banning their products, they will seek to undermine the credibility of the governments themselves.

The second lesson is that the history of tobacco consumption offers both a paradigm and a classic example of how consumerism works. To create mass markets, people must become addicted, physiological or psychological dependencies must be set up, desires and cravings must be implanted, so that the companies which can create these spectacular accomplishments can triumphantly point to the fact that they are only 'giving the people what they want'; which, as everyone knows, is the essence of democratic freedom. In this way, the makers of harmful and noxious products can appeal to popular majorities over the heads of governments, can manipulate 'democratic' majorities in the defence of the most damaging, dangerous and violent products.

A good contemporary example is to be seen in the makers and disseminators of violent videos and films and computer games: they are swift to claim they are only answering a 'market-need' (not a human one); and even in the light of such events as the Colorado massacre, they cry 'censorship' or 'curtailment of freedom' if anyone suggests interfering with the 'free' circulation of video-games or guns.

To attack tobacco is to confront one aspect of the system of which tobacco is a symptom. This has advantages and drawbacks. If it is singled out in isolation, it lets off the rest of the consumer malignancy scot-free; if it is tackled as simply one element of a destructive system, then the project becomes much more difficult to accomplish, but also more far-reaching and fundamental.- Third World Network Features

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is an author and freelance journalist based in London.