New Pictures On Cigarette Packages To Give Smokers A Push

Tobacco-packagingSmoker’s group Forest Éireann has railed against the introduction of mandatory graphic images on boxes of cigarettes from the beginning of February. From the 1st of this month, the boxes will feature grisly images such as a healthy lung alongside a blackened smoker’s lung. Spokesperson John Mallon has argued that while the group welcomes measures which educate people about the dangers of smoking, this is a measure “designed not to educate but to shock and coerce consumers to give up a legal product”.

Mallon is right and wrong. Education is a clearly key part of these new images – here’s what your lungs looked like before you started smoking, and here’s what they look like now, or will do in a matter of time. If you don’t want them to look like this, then it might be time to give up. And of course the images will shock many people. Some people will surely be shocked that their lungs once looked so clean, and shocked that they are so damaged after years of smoking. However, Mallon is wrong about the last part. True, cigarettes are a legal product, but coercement is not an issue here. The government is rightly letting smokers see what the end results of such a damaging habit is. Perhaps they should list out all of the hundreds of dangerous compounds and chemicals in these cigarettes, though undoubtedly there wouldn’t be nearly enough space on the boxes. But in reality, despite any posturing and complaining to the contrary, these images won’t do much to shock too many people. Like showing pictures of heroin addiction to a heroin addict, the connection simply won’t be made by many smokers. An addiction is something which is rationalised by the addict; they may understand all of the issues involved with smoking, all of the inherent dangers, all of the costs. But it is still rationalised or depersonalised. ‘I’m not like that. It doesn’t affect me that way. I don’t smoke that much. I’ve got it under control. It won’t get to that stage for me.’ I should know. As a former smoker, it’s all too clear, and amazing to behold from the other side the levels and lengths to which people will go to rationalise their behaviour.

Part of the rationalisation behaviour can involve comparing the smoking habit to other bad habits such as over-consumption of either alcohol or food, both of which have been plaguing Ireland. “What’s next,” asks John Mallon, “graphic health warnings on alcohol, fatty foods and cars?” He has a point, to a certain degree. Alcohol has long been an issue in Irish society, particularly its abuse amongst the younger generation. Efforts so far in trying to combat this abuse have been fairly tame, perhaps some graphic imagery regarding the severe over-consumption of drink is just what is needed. And for food? Why not? The term obesity epidemic is misleading and one which doesn’t stick quite to the facts and is moreso used by the media as part of alarmist reporting regarding the latest danger to strike our shores. But nevertheless the rate is indeed rising across the board, and some serious effort is needed to combat this rise, because over the next ten years, the rate will climb, as will people succumbing to the side effects, and, eventually, the bill the Health Service Executive will have to face each year. But leaving aside all of that, it’s a little silly to compare smoking to any of those three things. The Irish Heart Foundation attributes in the region of 2,000/2500 deaths to obesity each year, although this will undoubtedly be on the rise over the next ten to fifteen years as our obesity issues grow larger and larger. Costs at the moment to the healthcare system are estimated to be around €400 million per annum. Meanwhile, deaths from alcohol are estimated to number roughly 170 each year through alcohol poisoning according to the Health Research Board. Costs to the state were almost €4 billion in 2007, but alcohol is a bad example for the tobacco industry to choose, a substance which can be equally as addictive and destructive across many Irish families. And finally, the Road Safety Authority’s statistics show that there were 186 road deaths in 2011. These deaths have been reduced quite substantially through a wide-reaching campaign on dangerous driving practices, including drink driving, and a number of punitive measures should these new laws be breached.

Part of you might think that Fallon has a point. Surely there are worse things out there. Issues of freedom come into play here and none of us want the government limiting our freedoms. It’s a basic tenet of human nature – we like to do what we want and when we want, without being told ‘no’. The right to bear arms in the US is a wonderful example of this, with hundreds of thousands of people frothing at the mouth at the suggestion that being able to possess military grade weaponry on the streets perhaps shouldn’t be a right. People should be allowed to smoke however many they choose, without the government butting in, trying to save their lives. Tongue-in-cheek aside, that is true. But smoking isn’t really the same as alcohol abuse, obesity and dangerous driving. It’s on a level of its own. Firstly, 7,000 people die from smoking in Ireland each year, a staggeringly needless figure which boils down to 134 people each week and nearly 20 people every single day. It costs the state in the region of €1 billion to provide healthcare services, with 90 per cent of the country’s lung cancer caused by smoking, and 50 per cent of all smokers dying as a direct result, not taking into account the people around who are harmed by second-hand smoke. When alcohol is used in moderation, the results are not deadly, and can be even beneficial in some cases. Fatty foods, similarly can be enjoyed on occasion when combined with a healthy diet and exercise. As for cars, their main aim is safely transporting us from A to B, and the accidents happen when human error comes into play. Cigarettes, when used exactly as they are designed to, are deadly products. If you’re lucky you might not lose too many years before your death. But you’ll very possible spend those years labouring for breath, susceptible to disease and fighting cancer. There is no upside. To be honest, Forest Éireann have nothing to be grumbling about. Sure, some people might be put off by these graphic warnings, but blocking them out is a simple thing to do. Perhaps even, as Fallon argues, “far from giving up, most smokers will ignore them and reach for their fags in defiance.” So the need is clear, as Fallon points out inadvertently. Something needs to be done which will ensure smokers don’t ignore it. Taxation doesn’t work so well. While you might get a small drop in levels of consumption, the reality is that you are simply driving more and more people, desperate for a fix, into the arms of illegal retailers. So people are still paying to kill themselves slowly, just without the added benefit of filling government coffers which can in turn be put to use in treating these people when they get sick. What that is, nobody can say for sure. Graphic images will probably shock non-smokers more than smokers, or they will simply get used to seeing them emblazoned across their purchases. Nicotine products such as chewing gum or patches aren’t always successful while offering smokers incentives might work initially, as some research has suggested, but that success will wear off quickly when those incentives disappear. It’s hard to know what to do, but what is being done at the moment isn’t nearly enough to make the tobacco companies and their representatives whinge.

It’s not entirely surprising to discover that the group maintains links to the tobacco industry through its parent, Forest UK, which receives most of its money through UK-based tobacco companies. On its website the organisation claims that it is fiercely independent, fighting for the consumer, who is evidently not quite ready to return the support. When an independent organisation receives the vast majority of its monetary support from one particular industry, little alarm bells begin to tinkle, and the thought may just occur to some that such a group isn’t quite as independent as it may seem. Again, unsurprisingly, academic sources have claimed Forest to be little more than a front group for the tobacco industry, established and maintained by them, with little grassroots support. Who should we listen to? The likes of Forest, who want nothing more than to allow them continue smoking without any interference or strong attempt to get them to stop (while the tobacco industry pulls strings in the background) or the government, woefully inept as they may be in many arenas, but at least trying to save the lives of Irish citizens (and its health budget, of course). When questioned, a surprisingly large number of smokers will actually indicate a level of unease with their smoking, or more encouragingly, a desire to stop. All they need, then, is that little push.

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