Sunday, January 1, 2012

Plain packages

Anti-smoker zealots would have us believe that all tobacco control initiatives are about public health; if smokers can be coerced into quitting their filthy habit, then the cancer “epidemic” and dozens of other “tobacco related” diseases would simply disappear. But honesty and integrity are not characteristics I normally associate with the anti-smoker crowd.

The latest gambit in the campaign to force smokers to quit comes from the land down under.

Australia has launched legislation that will require tobacco products to be sold in plain packaging beginning in December 2012. Under the plain packaging legislation, all tobacco products will have to be sold in ugly olive-green packages, plastered with graphic health warnings, with the product name in standardized lettering.

It is believed that plain packaging will make cigarettes less attractive to young people, improve the effectiveness of health warnings and diminish the perception that some brands are ‘safer’ than others. According to the zealots, making the cigarette package as nondescript and unappealing as possible will reduce smoking uptake amongst children and young people. Uh-huh.

Of course, there’s no way the effectiveness of this, or any other single tobacco control initiative, can be evaluated. Have fewer kids taken up the smoking habit because cigarettes are hidden from view or because laws prohibiting sales of tobacco to minors, on the books in Canada for over a hundred years, are finally being enforced?

Do cigarette packages, adorned as they are with repulsive graphic health warnings, really encourage children and young people to start smoking just because a small portion of the package comes in a pretty shade of blue or a company logo?

British American Tobacco (BAT) has launched a court challenge to Australia’s plain packaging legislation. This angers the anti-smoker zealots who prefer the industry to roll over and play dead.

Australia’s Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, said in a statement: "Let there be no mistake, big tobacco is fighting against the government for one very simple reason - because it knows, as we do, that plain packaging will work.”

The simple truth is that neither she, nor her government, can possibly know any such thing.

Australia is the first jurisdiction in the world to contemplate such legislation, and that legislation is not scheduled to become effective for another year. So there is no precedent on which to base her claim that the government knows plain packaging will work.

But, despite the lack of evidence demonstrating any merit in such legislation, anti-smoker zealots are already pushing for similar laws in other jurisdictions, including Great Britain and Canada.

In Canada, cigarette advertising is conspicuous by its absence, cigarette displays are prohibited at point of sale and the sale of any tobacco products to minors is illegal. The elimination of company trademarks, logos or colour schemes is unlikely to make cigarettes any less appealing to children (or young people). Even adults don’t get to see the pack until after they’ve paid for them.

Of course, the kids might develop a nicotine “addiction” from the flavoured nicotine gum or lozenges which are sold over the counter with no age restrictions. But, that’s for another post.

And, it’s hard to see how plain packaging would make the graphic warnings on cigarette packs any more effective. They’re already as ghoulish and grotesque as a scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or some other slasher flick.

And, the packs will still require a modifier indicating whether the contents are regular, light, extra light or menthol. Whether the smokes are marked Peter Jackson Lights, Peter Jackson Blue or Peter Jackson Number 2 will make little difference. The distinction between regular and light cigarettes will always be there because smokers want, and are entitled, to know what they’re buying. So, there is little to be accomplished on that front.

Plain packaging? Bullshit and bafflegab at its finest.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Return of The Old Rambler

I guess it’s about time I gave readers of this blog (at least those who haven’t deserted me) an explanation for my lengthy absence and the lack of a timely response to their e-mails; 386 unanswered e-mails in one account and 522 in the other.

The simple truth is that I’ve had neither the energy nor the inclination to sit down at my computer long enough to even check my email accounts, let alone post to my blog. A lengthy hospitalization (over three months) can be both debilitating and depressing.

Obviously, rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated, although it was ‘touch and go’ for awhile. Nor have I been soaking up the sun on some remote island in the South Pacific. In fact, a vacation on some snow covered island in the frozen reaches of the far north would have been preferable to where I did spend the summer and a good part of the fall. Hospitals are no place for rest and relaxation.

I knew I was in deep shit when I woke up back in June with some sweet young thing asking me if I knew my name or where I was. I answered, in a barely audible whisper, “Huh?”

“Do you know where you are?” she persisted.

“Hospital,” I wheezed, after giving the question some serious thought. “CABG” (coronary artery bypass graft)

“That’s right.” She smiled, “Now, can you tell me your name.”

I did the Socrates routine and answered her question with one of my own. “How in fuck does a guy get run over by a truck in the middle of an operating room?” Her raised eyebrow suggested she was in no mood for humour. So I told her who I was even though I suspected she already knew. I was in no position to be combative.

Bypass surgery is fairly commonplace these days; some might be tempted to say routine. But it does come with some considerable risk attached. The surgery itself went well, or so I’m told. It was an infection, a touch of pneumonia and fluid on the lungs which kept me in the intensive care unit for five weeks. I’m still trying to figure out how you get an infection, especially a contagious one, in such a sterile environment.

At any rate, I spent five weeks with nothing to eat or drink that wasn’t pumped through a tube. And weeks after that eating solid foods pureed to the point of liquidity and drinking fruit juice thickened to the point where you had to drink it with a spoon. Did you know that they can even thicken water?

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. I did manage to shed 35 pounds. But, it’s a weight loss regimen I wouldn’t recommend to everyone. In fact, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, even the fanatics in the anti-smoker brigade.

But I’m not going to spend a lot of time crying in my beer. I was sick. And, thanks to some very capable and dedicated medical professionals, I’m now on the road to recovery.

The cardiac surgeon seems happy with the outcome and I’m happy I’m still on the green side of the grass. Even the nurse I overheard confide to a colleague, “He’s not going to make it,” seemed pleased to be wrong. And it will come as no surprise that I’m as pleased as a pig in shit that she was. Wrong that is.

It has not been a pleasant experience. And, it’s taken a toll both physically and mentally. But it’s time to shake off the lethargy and get on with the business of living. And that includes making regular posts to this blog.

I’ll be out of town over the holidays, spending time with my kids and grandkids. But, hopefully, I should be able to start making regular posts in the New Year.

Until then, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and the best of luck in the New Year.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Can we make smoking safer by reducing TSNA?

A new “scientific” study from anti-smoker researchers concludes:”We found no indication that any meaningful attempt was made to reduce or at least control TSNA levels in the new varieties of the popular brands Marlboro and Camel introduced over the last decade. In light of the recently granted regulatory authority to the FDA over tobacco products, regulation of TSNA levels in cigarette tobacco should be strongly considered to reduce the levels of these potent carcinogens in cigarette smoke.”

The researchers are calling for the US FDA to dictate a reduction in the levels of TSNA (tobacco specific nitrosamines) in cigarettes. This follows a WHO (World Health Organization) proposal to mandate a lowering of selected “toxicants” in cigarette smoke published in the journal Tobacco Control in 2008.

Study authors are claiming that higher levels of TSNA in cigarette smoke are associated with a higher risk of cancer, and that reducing TSNA will have an unspecified beneficial affect. “Modification of tobacco curing methods and other changes in cigarette manufacturing techniques could substantially reduce the levels of tobacco-specific nitrosamines (TSNA), a group of potent carcinogens, in cigarette smoke.”

The inference is that reducing the levels of TSNA in cigarettes will reduce the alleged health risks of smoking; that mandating lower levels of TSNA will, in fact, result in safer cigarettes.

The problem, of course, is that the specific chemicals, or chemical compounds, (the toxicants) responsible for the alleged risks related to tobacco smoke are unknown. So, following the logic of the anti-smoker crowd, there can be absolutely no scientific evidence that reducing or even eliminating specific constituents in tobacco smoke will reduce its overall toxicity.

If the specific constituents in tobacco smoke responsible for lung cancer are unknown, it follows that no safe level of exposure to those unknown constituents can be determined.

In fact, that is just what the US Surgeon General has stated unequivocally; that there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke. And, if there's no safe level of exposure, just how in hell will forcing the cigarette companies to reduce levels of specific tobacco constituents improve public health?

The researchers are highly critical of the tobacco companies, blaming them for their failure “to reduce or at least control TSNA levels.” But, obviously, if there is no such thing as a safer cigarette, as the anti-smoker zealots contend, then reducing the levels of some chemicals in tobacco is a complete waste of time, effort and money.

This latest study ignores the fact that it was anti-smoker zealots who were responsible for the termination of research into potentially less hazardous cigarettes. In fact, for 30 years, the anti-smoker cult has categorically rejected the possibility.

In the late seventies, the Smoking and Health Program was administered by the National Cancer Institute in the US; charged with the task of developing a less hazardous cigarette. Among those researching the possibility of less hazardous cigarettes were such notables as Gio Batta Gori and Ernst Wynder, both of whom opposed smoking.

Dr. Gori, who received the U.S. Public Health Service Superior Service Award in 1976 for his efforts, maintained that a less harmful cigarette could be developed. He did not envision a “safe” cigarette, but rather a safer cigarette, one which would reduce the risk(s) associated with smoking even though it might not eliminate those risks in their entirety. Focusing on harm reduction, Gori asserted, could substantially reduce the morbidity and mortality for which tobacco was thought responsible.

In 2002, Gori wrote: “One-fifth of humanity smokes with little indication they might soon quit, too many public and private interests benefit handsomely from the trade, and an illegal market stands eager to fill an uncontrollable demand should taxes and prices be set too high or should cigarettes be made illegal. Hence, the sensible and ethical public health policy would be to continue efforts to persuade smokers to quit, and to consider ways to reduce the risks for those who keep on smoking.”

Unfortunately, Dr. Gori's harm reduction approach to tobacco use was discarded in favour of the zealots zero tolerance policies and research on less hazardous cigarettes was terminated circa 1980 when the prohibitionists announced they could end smoking by the year 2000.

So how can the WHO and the anti-smoker zealots insist, on the one hand, that less hazardous cigarettes are neither feasible nor desirable, while on the other advocating a reduction of TSNA and other toxicants, ostensibly to facilitate some kind of health benefit to smokers?

If the anti-smoker crowd were genuinely concerned about the health of smokers, they would embrace the concept of harm reduction. They would actively promote all products with the potential to reduce the alleged hazards of smoking, including snus and the electronic cigarette, not just those products on offer from the pharmaceutical industry.

Instead, the anti-smokers stridently attempt to discredit those tobacco products, with dishonest claims and blatant misrepresentation of the facts.

This latest study, and the proposals from the WHO which preceded it, must be considered disingenuous at best. Just more bullshit and bafflegab from the disciples of the Holy Church of the Anti-smoker.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Smoking is . . . is not, an addiction

There's been a lot written about smoking and addiction on the blogs and websites dedicated to such issues this past week. It's actually a difficult subject to discuss because there's no longer any real definition of addiction; the meaning has become rather vague, lost actually, with the parameters seemingly changing to suit the occasion.

John Banzhaf, one of the high priests of the Holy Church of the Anti-smoker, has pontificated that smoking is not an addiction. The addiction, he claims, is to nicotine. And, since nicotine addicts can get their fix from any number of sources or delivery systems, including the patch, gum or electronic cigarette, then smoking becomes a choice.

And, it naturally follows that, if smoking is a choice, then it is fair and reasonable to discriminate against smokers by refusing medical treatment, among other things.

Anti-smoking activist Michael Siegel, takes exception to Banzhaf's decree, claiming that smoking is indeed an addiction; smokers are as much in need of the rituals involved in smoking as they are in the hit of nicotine.

Siegel's main concern is that, if smoking is viewed as a choice rather than an addiction, then legal action against the tobacco companies, dependent as they are on the proposition that people don't quit because they can't, becomes that much more difficult. The contention that the tobacco companies compel smokers to use their product by making it addictive becomes a somewhat specious argument.

If nicotine is the addiction, and there are other sources of nicotine available, then the case against the tobacco companies goes up in smoke. The anti-smoker strategy of painting smokers as the helpless victims of “big tobacco” falls apart and smokers become the authors of their own misfortune.

In the US, the patch became available by prescription in 1992, and over the counter in 1996. Other alternative nicotine delivery systems have been developed and marketed since then. So, if nicotine is addictive, then Banzhaf has a point. And, the smoker has ample access to an alternative supply of nicotine. In addition, there are now a number of relatively safer tobacco products available, including the electronic cigarette and snus. Plug (chewing tobacco), cigars and pipes have also been shown to be less hazardous in comparison to cigarettes.

So, can either smoking or nicotine be properly considered an addiction?

Reviewing the smoking prevalence statistics from Health Canada's last SAMMEC report, we find that 44% of Canadians over the age of fifteen (roughly 8 million) are former smokers. So, if either smoking or nicotine is an addiction, obviously neither requires a herculean effort to break. Certainly neither is in the same league as heroin or cocaine addiction.

To me, that suggests the anti-smoker claim that 75% or 80% or 120% of smokers want to quit but simply can't because of their addiction is just so much bullshit. If they really wanted to quit, they'd join the 8 million Canadians who have already done so.

As a layman, I have to rely on common sense to distinguish between addiction and habit. For example, if I run out of smokes and knock on my neighbours door to beg a fag, I'm entertaining a habit. If I kick in his door, beat him about the head with a blunt instrument and take his fags, then I'm feeding an addiction.

That may be considered a simplistic analogy, but the scientific (medical) definition of addiction has become meaningless. I read of addictions to chocolate, sex, Big Macs, computer games and pale ale, among other things. The growing list of addictions has become something of a joke. Every time I read about some new addiction, I find myself wondering just what the fuck they're talking about.

No two people are alike. Like their fingerprints, each individual is unique. Some will have a much more difficult time in giving up their habit(s) than others. But, that does not make them addicts. Some people will use addiction as an excuse for not giving up a habit, but it's just as likely that they haven't really made the commitment required to quit successfully. Because, deep down, they don't really want to quit smoking, or eating chocolate or drinking pale ale.

So, it appears that one faction of the anti-smoker cult wants to paint nicotine as the culprit. That way they can lobby government to promote NRT (nicotine replacement therapy) as the cure for “nicotine dependence” and provide free NRT for those poor helpless souls who, according to the zealots, just can't quit any other way. And, greater sales of NRT will, not coincidentally, put a smile on the faces of their financial backers in the pharmaceutical industry.

In addition, if nicotine is the addiction, they can continue to attack all forms of nicotine delivery from alternative tobacco products such as the electronic cigarette and snus. To the anti-smoker cult, pharmaceutical nicotine is the only acceptable form of nicotine.

The opposing faction wants the act of smoking itself identified as the addiction. Going down that road leads to more legal action against the big, bad wolf as symbolized by the tobacco industry. They can continue the charade that smokers, because of their addiction, are simply incapable of free choice.

Neither construct fits the classical definition of addiction; both do a disservice to smokers who may actually want to quit. Those individuals are being convinced by anti-smoker zealots that quitting is hopeless without the intervention of the cult; that the road to salvation (giving up the habit) lies only in following the dictates of the Holy Church of the Anti-smoker.

Dictates . . .dictator . . . anti-smokers . . . that's why I'll never be a former smoker.