H/T Harley for a mention of Individual rights advocacy in tobacco control policies: an assessment and recommendation by J E Katz in BMJ’s 2005 Tobacco Control section.
I’ve spent the evening reading it and jotting notes.
I had expected Dr James E. Katz of Rutgers University to be a Professor of Ethics or Moral Philosophy. He was no such thing, however. James E. Katz, PhD is a communication scholar with an expertise in new media, (especially concerning the Internet, social media, and mobile phone). The PhD was in Sociology. It’s rather wonderful the way that Tobacco Control can summon up multi-skilled experts-in-everything more or less ex nihilo (Stanton Glantz’s ascension from mechanical engineer to Professor of Medicine is another notable example).
And, whether he’s formally affiliated or not, James E. Katz is very much cast in the Tobacco Control mindset. Within a handful of sentences at the start of his article he is warning against “inadvertently assist[ing] the tobacco industry.” And deep in the text later on he sees Tobacco Control advocates as “on the side of angels” in the Manichaean conflict with satanic Big Tobacco. And to top it all, Stanton Glantz himself gets an acknowledgement in the footnotes.
Katz’ concern with rights is purely tactical. He thinks that Big Tobacco has cornered the market in ‘rights’, and believes their stranglehold needs to be broken. Too many people associate ‘rights’ only with smokers, and not enough with non-smokers.
I point this out because Katz is actually completely unconcerned with morality, with what’s right and wrong. He doesn’t anguish over the rights of smokers. For him, the modern doctrine of rights is simply another piece of artillery to be utilised against the ubiquitous “Industry”. The enemy has got this sort of artillery, and so we must have some too.
He discusses the tactical and strategic advantages of playing the rights card. It will, he says, “counter the public perception that fails to see tobacco control advocates as favouring individual rights”. He also asserts that “tobacco control advocates would be well advised to counter directly whatever the industry views as being to its own advantage.” And opines that “formulating policy based on individual rights appeals to the highest ethical standards.” If Tobacco Control can cloak themselves in the language of rights, they will look good. Furthermore, if “ETS is an individual rights violation, the need for corrective action becomes clear”. And it’s a psychological weapon:
…a non-smokers’ rights position denies the tobacco industry a prized psychological weapon: the “individual rights of smokers” argument.
He also warns of ways in which the weapon might backfire. “Stirring up the rights issue may be fomenting opposition to improvements in tobacco control policy.” And “Some people fear that success on the ETS front will create a metaphorical slippery slope leading to new attacks on other behaviours.”
As for the rights in question, he defines them as the rights to life, liberty, and property. And he very rapidly ranks these in ascending order from the right to property at the bottom, through the right to liberty, all the way up to the right to life, which is the most important right of all.
“No rights are unlimited, and the polity and courts must at times give priority to some rights over others. For instance, as important as liberty is, it usually is considered secondary to the right of life. Property rights, especially those pertaining to commercial property, are by no means absolute, and for the purposes of this paper are considered subsidiary to the right to liberty.”
This is the justification for the suppression of the right to liberty and property rights beneath the all-important right to life.
“It is, therefore, the case that smokers contravene the individual rights of those around them, especially since the tobacco smoke is disturbing the status quo ante—that is, in the classic argument, the right to be free from assault by other people’s tobacco use trumps the right to consume tobacco products.”
And, needless to say, he regards tobacco smoke as a genuine threat to the life of non-smokers, even if most studies deny it.
Reflecting upon the article, it seemed to me that the moral core of it does not lie in any doctrine of rights, but rather in a Manichaean struggle between Good and Evil, with Tobacco Control advocates “on the side of angels”, of course. The same Manichaean vision occurs repeatedly in the Tobacco Control literature, with “the tobacco industry” or “the industry” or sometimes just “industry” cast in something like the role of Sauron, the Dark Lord of Mordor in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. “The industry” is ubiquitous, resourceful, and fiendishly cunning. It also perhaps possesses magical powers.
This always strikes me as a kind of vast delusion. For in my view, the tobacco industry is simply an agricultural business that sells tobacco in much the same way as other agricultural businesses sell beans or potatoes. And if tobacco companies can be labelled (and perhaps libelled) as something not far off the Root of All Evil, what’s to stop potato farmers and lettuce growers being tarred with the same brush?
For I have never heard “the industry” advancing any rights-based arguments. If only because, in the UK at least, “the industry” has been more or less completely muzzled by removing its right to advertise its products. “The industry” is, as far as I can see, lying trussed and tied under the foot of all-conquering Tobacco Control, which now feasts on its blood (by means, for example, of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement).
And this is a dangerous game for Tobacco Control to play. For what happens when they cease to be regarded as “on the side of angels”, but instead themselves come to be seen to be wearing the mask of Sauron?
“The epithet “Health Nazi” was invented by the tobacco industry to discredit efforts to encourage public health. Reprehensible as the term is, it serves its purpose; it readily allows the portrayal of those concerned about health to be seen not as well intentioned humanitarians, but just the opposite: rights and life destroying monsters.”
There are other caveats. If we accept that “Non-smokers’ rights to be free of harmful interference trumps the right of others to be at liberty to smoke,” then must we not next accept that people’s rights to be free of obnoxious odours trumps the sight of others to eat newly baked bread or fried bacon or garlic in restaurants and public places? And do not the rights of silent people to be free of noise and laughter also trump the rights of others to talk and laugh in restaurants and public places? All these behaviours can be framed as “harmful interference”, and half a dozen academic studies to prove it rustled up over a weekend.
And when he writes that “…the argument is saying not that smoking itself is forbidden but only smoking around others,” how near to others do you have to be to be ‘around’ them? 10 yards? 100 yards? A mile? 100 miles?
There is of course the vexed question of the reality or existence of these ‘rights’. And in this respect it might be remarked that the ‘right to clean air’ is an entirely new right which has only made its appearance over the past 60 or so years. Such a right would have seemed senseless in the Victorian era when not only did many people smoke, but so also did their coal fires and chimneys and stoves and gaslights and candles, as well as their steam locomotives and ships and factories. The world within living memory was a predominantly smoky world. And it was just as smoky in antiquity. A “smoke-free” world is not so much a right as a modern luxury. For there was no conceivable ‘right’ to it until recently.
And might we not adjust one sentence from the text, with the addition of the word ‘control’, to learn that:
“The tobacco control industry has thus created an artificial world in which people’s ordinary construction of relationships and meanings is distorted, making it difficult for people to make rational, informed decisions about tobacco and health.”