Toxic Culture

In 2012, cigarette packages will have graphic pictures of the health consequences from smoking. One of the images is of a corpse. Also in 2012 we’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published a few years after the US Surgeon General officially warned us that cigarette smoking is hazardous to health. Despite all that, we remain at risk from tobacco and industrial chemicals—and for much the same reasons.

May 31 was World No Tobacco Day, created by the World Health Organization to encourage awareness of the health risks associated with cigarette smoking. The focus of attention was not on industrial countries, where smoking rates have declined, but on industrializing countries that have become the targets of the tobacco industry. In a sense, tobacco and pesticides have had a similar fate: when their products’ sales potential was limited in industrial countries, they turned to less-protected industrializing countries.

Why can’t industrializing countries do what we’ve done to reduce smoking? It’s not because they’re ignorant of the science or because they are corrupt or because their respective cultures are not as health conscious as ours. It’s because tobacco companies fight dirty and have lots of money with which to do it. For example, in Uruguay the Philip Morris Tobacco Company filed a suit against the government’s attempts to regulate tobacco, asking for $2 billion in damages. That amount might be chump change to the US government, but not to Uruguay.

In other words, the tobacco industry is following the same strategy of bullying, bribes, intimidation, and lies that it followed in the United States. Not that they’ve ever stopped. A recent study shows how tobacco companies use “predatory marketing” of menthol cigarettes near schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.

Having said that, I don’t think the problem is that tobacco companies—or for that matter chemical companies or biotech companies or telecom companies or oil companies or auto companies or any other Goliath of toxicity—have the financial muscle to get whatever they want. Clearly they don’t and they haven’t. But neither do they or their poisons go away.

And I don’t think that the problem is ignorant, weak-willed smokers—or for that matter, consumers of any product that is itself toxic or comes from an industry that spews toxins for which we pay in deteriorating human and ecological health.

The companies and the consumers are simply predator and prey. In that kind of ecology, what else can we expect?

And I don’t think the problem is lawmakers and regulators who fail to protect people from those predations. Although the new, startling images required by the FDA are likely to have some effect, everyone expects the impact to decline over time. Like all attempts to reform and regulate toxic products and production, industry will work to avoid, undermine, or even reverse the regulation. There are two fundamental reasons for this.

The first is inequality. An industry knows way more than we do about what’s going on in its little corner of the world and has the resources, time, and attention to use that information to its advantage. In other words, industry can work full time to protect itself and count it as a cost of doing business—which means it’s in the price of its products. You and I on the other hand have less information, must work to acquire it, and then work to make the poisoning stop—all in our spare time while we buy products that help cover the cost of opposing our work.

The second problem is that everyone who appears before the regulator is equal. You and I, as the recent Supreme Court ruling established, are just like Philip Morris and Monsanto. This, of course, is absurd. But it is the foundation of our legal system and of our culture generally. A man or woman who persuaded a child to do something that harmed the child would be rightly condemned. A man or woman who, working for Philip Morris’s marketing department, developed a campaign to persuade a child to smoke cigarettes would not be condemned. On the contrary, he or she is likely to be rewarded at work and with that success honored by family, friends, and neighbors.

Although all of these forces are at work, reforming them will ultimately not stop the poisons: not better informed consumers, not disincentives for bad behavior or incentives for good behavior by the people who conduct business, not better protections of lawmakers and regulators from the predations of those businesspeople. Regulatory reforms won’t work because they are based on a toxic culture in which human needs are met through the bargain struck between consumer and producer, with poison on the side. That culture blinds us to what ought to be the real dynamic: people who produce things are at the service of the people who need those things.