The Life-and-Death Cycle of Tobacco

The Life-and-Death Cycle of Tobacco
Dan Brook

It’s a matter of life and death.

Smoking is reported to kill nearly half a million Americans every year and several million people annually worldwide. Yet this a grave underestimate, due to the uncounted albeit substantial collateral damage. Smoking is a matter of life and death, from its production and distribution to its consumption and disposal. In the United States, fertile land is used to grow tobacco, where, instead, food could be growing. Increasingly, tobacco is grown in poor countries around the world, where large swaths of forest throughout Latin America, Africa, and Asia, including India, have been completely deforested, just for the planting of profitable tobacco, transforming rich ecosystems supporting a wide diversity of life into privatized, monocropped sweatfields.

Deforestation has been implicated in various ongoing eco-debacles: species extinction, significant contributions to global warming, soil erosion, polluted water, even the changing of weather patterns and levels of rainfall. Not only does deforestation release a lot of carbon into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change in a major way, but the deforested land also means there won’t be trees to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air thereafter.

Tobacco farming is typically a chemically-intensive endeavor with hundreds of chemicals approved for use on tobacco fields. A slumgullion of toxic chemicals, some of the most dangerous pesticides available, are sprayed on the tobacco plants, but also wind up on the tobacco workers, as well as whoever and whatever else is downwind and downstream. As for the tobacco workers, even in the United States, they can legally be a minimum of only 12 years old, yet little children as young as 7 are found working the tobacco fields (especially on small family farms). Some of these child workers are in the fields for up to sixty grueling hours per week. Tragically, occupational fatalities are four times higher in agriculture for children than for other jobs, yet tobacco workers, just like tobacco consumers, are seen as disposable.

An unfortunate albeit purposeful loophole in the labor laws allows for children to work in agriculture, so that wealthy landowners could hire African-American children on the cheap. Decades ago, agricultural laborers were disproportionately African-American, now they are disproportionately Latino. Either way, poor school-age kids of color are being exploited, poisoned by nicotine and pesticides, and robbed of their childhoods, and their educations, in the name of corporate profits. This is yet another tragic intersection of capitalism and racism.

After the tobacco is harvested, it is cured. To cure the tobacco, the tobacco is put up on racks, below which fires are lit underneath to smoke dry the tobacco. Burning these fires to cure the tobacco even further contributes to deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution, asthma, lung cancer, and climate change.

Additionally, billions of cigarettes are rolled every day in factories. Although cigarette paper is very thin, the amount of paper wrapping all of those cigarettes consumes a lot of trees. Every 20 cigarettes goes into a cardboard pack, coming from more trees. Every 20 packs of cigarettes goes into a cardboard carton; even more trees. Cartons of cigarettes are put into an even bigger cardboard box for shipping and trucking around the world, which, in addition to more trees, consumes a lot of oil to do so.

As sociopathic, profit-maximizing machines, multibillion-dollar tobacco corporations have done anything possible to increase addiction to cigarettes, thereby making their products more dangerous. For several decades, tobacco companies have employed what has been dubbed the “tobacco strategy”. It is multifaceted, cynical, and sinister. Despite its dangers, tobacco companies do whatever it takes to get people to smoke and to get people addicted to doing so as quickly as possible, simply to increase their sales of this deadly product.

Nicotine is the key addictive ingredient in tobacco and tobacco companies have become expert at “spiking” the product. Tobacco plants may be genetically modified to increase the absorption of nicotine when the tobacco is smoked. A variety of ingredients are added to the tobacco to make it less bitter or otherwise more palatable to be inhaled. Some chemicals are added to the cigarettes, so that when the smoke is drawn into people’s bodies, their capillaries dilate, thereby forcing them to absorb the nicotine faster and deeper. Tiny perforations are put in the paper around the filter of the cigarette, so that more air can be drawn in as a smoker inhales the smoke. These and other tricks are designed so that the smoke will be inhaled a little bit deeper, so that the nicotine will be absorbed a little bit quicker, therefore hastening and hardening people’s addiction to this inherently dangerous product.

In addition to containing seemingly-weird ingredients, such as beeswax, caffeine, prunes, milk products, wine, and yeast, cigarettes and their clouds of smoke contain thousands of chemicals, plus nasty pesticide residues, with at least 43 neurotoxic and cancer-causing chemicals, including ammonia (toilet bowl cleaner?), arsenic (rat poison?!), butane (lighter fluid), carbon monoxide (poisonous gas), DDT (dangerous insecticide), formaldehyde (preserves dead bodies), hydrogen cyanide (poison), methyl bromide (class-1 carcinogen), methyl isocyanate (Bhopal culprit), napthalene (mothballs), cadmium, lead, benzene, malathion, toxaphene, aldicarb, and other highly toxic and disgusting substances, plus radioactive polonium 210, all with both short- and long-term serious consequences for people, animals, and the rest of the environment.

Multibillion-dollar tobacco mega-corporations also engage in many research studies, quashing all of them that show any deleterious effects, which are of course most of them. Many of these labs have been moved overseas, making it less likely that any information can be gotten through subpoena or legal discovery. Links between smoking and cancer have been known since the early twentieth century, though it took until 1964 for U.S. Surgeon General Luther L. Terry to issue his landmark report on the human health hazards of smoking. During that time, tobacco companies paid doctors and others to shill their deadly product, touting what they erroneously and fraudulently claimed were the health benefits of smoking.

No longer able to explicitly advertise their deadly products or distribute free swag in United States to get people hooked, due to the successful lawsuits and settlements against them, these corporations certainly have no hesitation about massively funding electoral campaigns, aggressively lobbying politicians, involving themselves in the judicial branch, and engaging in under-the-radar public relations campaigns to pervert our democratic system as well as our personal tastes and desires, while undermining our health, taxing our healthcare system, and destabilizing our environment. And when, in 1994, the CEOs of the seven largest tobacco companies testified together in Congress, they all claimed under oath — and apparently lied — that they did not believe that the nicotine in their cigarettes is addictive, one explicitly stating that they “don’t believe that nicotine or our products are addictive.”

Tobacco companies, especially, have to be so aggressive, because they lose so many of their customers every year, not just because some people quit smoking, which is great, but because so many die from using the product, precisely as it is intended to be used. In the process of killing people, smoking also blackens lungs, wrinkles skin, stains teeth and fingers, fouls breath, and rasps the voice.

Smoking is absolutely disastrous for personal as well as public health. At nearly half a million people per year, smoking kills more people in the U.S. than those who die by suicide, homicide, AIDS, and car accidents combined. Around the world, millions of people die from smoking every year. And, according to Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, “Environmental tobacco smoke is a Class A carcinogen, and it sickens more than 1 million kids every year.”

Smoking is not a direct cause of cancer, heart disease, or emphysema, in the sense that not all smokers get those diseases and some who get those diseases never smoked. We can, however, say that smoking is a systemic cause of lung cancer, for example, as we know that in a given population of smokers, a certain amount of them are almost certain to get lung cancer. Yet of those who do contract lung cancer, about 9/10 of them are or were smokers; of that remaining 1/10, many lived with smokers and/or worked in places with bad air quality (i.e., radon, asbestos). As the most common cancer and the leading cause of cancer deaths, lung cancer is a scourge and public health threat. It is not surprising that cigarettes have been called cancerettes, which is certainly no joke for the many families that suffer.

Smoking is, of course, most dangerous for those who smoke, however smoking is also dangerous for those who are around smokers. Second-hand smoke, the smoke inhaled by non-smokers who are around smokers, is also quite dangerous and leads to a certain number of deadly diseases. Those who get sick from second-hand smoke are those who tend to be the closest to the smoker: spouses, partners, parents, children, friends, colleagues, co-congregationalists, classmates, neighbors, pets, and so on; those whom we typically love the most. There is also something called third-hand smoke. Not as deadly as second-hand smoke and certainly not as dangerous as actually smoking, third-hand smoke is nevertheless still deadly, as well as disgusting. The tiny particulates and ash of smoke can land on any surface. Third-hand smoke is when one can smell smoke on somebody’s breath, hair, or clothing, when it seems to be on someone’s bed, couch, or drapes, or when it simply hangs stale in the air when nobody is smoking at the time.

Smoking also has a huge impact on public health, health care costs, and the economy. If we were to add up some of the consequences of smoking, including doctor visits, medicines, surgeries, hospital stays, lost productivity, dependent care, transportation to and fro, not to mention the fears and anxieties associated with these acute healthcare situations, the costs are clearly huge, even if difficult to calculate. There are other costs as well.

Cigarette butts are the most littered item in the world. Along with used matches, wrappers, and lighters, we unfortunately find cigarette butts routinely in the streets and on sidewalks, on beaches and in waterways, in parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards, and elsewhere, creating aesthetically-displeasing environments. This little yet ubiquitous item finds its way down catch basins and into sewers, where they contribute to clogging, blockages, and sometimes flooding. Governments have to spend scarce tax dollars to remedy these problems. Cigarette butts, which may appear to be food, tragically wind up in the throats and stomachs of various marine animals, including seagulls and other seabirds, turtles, seals, sea lions, dolphins, sharks, whales, and others, as well as dogs, contributing to suffering and the loss of life.

Cigarettes also contribute to many house and forest fires with horrific results. Although the smokers themselves are, of course, personally responsible for the consequences they cause, there is no denying the role of cigarettes in these unnecessary and tragic events. A study in Preventive Medicine concludes that cigarettes are the leading cause of fire-related death and injuries. According to Davis Jones, writing for the Sierra Club, “fires caused by cigarettes take the lives of more than 900 people in the U.S. every year. These fires amount to nearly $6 billion in annual human and property costs.”

Support for right-wing politicians, lying and fraud (they lied to the FDA and the Congress and they lied to us), deception, spiking, pushing, addicting kids with cartoon characters and swag, greed, ads, PR, spin, suppressing scientific studies and evidence of cancer and other deadly connections, offshoring research labs to distance them from public exposure: reactionary tobacco corporations have willfully done all this trickery and more. Tobacco companies have known for several decades that nicotine is addictive and that cigarettes systemically cause cancer, but they actively suppressed this information and lied about it, even when under oath in Congress. Cigarette companies are guilty of scamming us in the worst way, by making us pay a high price for our own suffering.

Smoking has been reduced in the United States due to three main reasons. First, higher cost. Increased taxes on cigarettes have made them less affordable, putting them out of reach of some. Second, more awareness. Some of the tax money derived from cigarette sales have gone into public education advertising campaigns, showing the dangers of smoking. Third, marginalization. More and more areas have been declared smoke-free zones, including public buildings, schools, restaurants, hotels, airports, airplanes, and, in some jurisdictions, public parks and elsewhere. These three reasons may have led to a fourth: cigarettes have been uncooled; they just aren’t cool like they used to be. With the U.S. market for cigarettes shrinking, tobacco companies, with their oversized bag of dirty tricks, increasingly prey upon vulnerable people in poorer countries as well as marketing differently dangerous e-cigarettes and vaping in the U.S.

Tobacco companies have tried to link cigarettes with democracy, modernity, westernization, and feminism (“You’ve come a long way, baby”), for example, but tobacco isn’t modern or progressive at all. It is decidedly regressive in every possible way. Tobacco companies manipulate cigarettes and communities; don’t let them manipulate you. Let’s kick butt and finally rid ourselves of toxic tobacco and the conniving corporations that peddle this poison.

Dan Brook, Ph.D. teaches political science and sociology in the San Francisco Bay Area, maintains No Smoking? and other web sites, and gets high on healthy and sustainable living. More information about him can be found here.

One Last Thing…

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