The Tobacco Epidemic

I mentioned the “tobacco epidemic” yesterday. It’s not something I made up. It appears in the first few lines of the Foreword of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control:


The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. The WHO FCTC is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health.

The WHO FCTC represents a paradigm shift in developing a regulatory strategy to address addictive substances; in contrast to previous drug control treaties, the WHO FCTC asserts the importance of demand reduction strategies as well as supply issues. The WHO FCTC was developed in response to the globalization of the tobacco epidemic. The spread of the tobacco epidemic is facilitated through a variety of complex factors with cross-border effects, including trade liberalization and direct foreign investment. Other factors such as global marketing, transnational tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship, and the international movement of contraband and counterfeit cigarettes have also contributed to the explosive increase in tobacco use.

What the hell is a “tobacco epidemic”? Shouldn’t they define what they mean by a “tobacco epidemic”?

Firstly, an epidemic is something that affects people – demos:

A disease that quickly and severely affects a large number of people and then subsides is an epidemic: throughout the Middle Ages, successive epidemics of the plague killed millions. Epidemic is also used as an adjective: she studied the causes of epidemic cholera. A disease that is continually present in an area and affects a relatively small number of people is endemic: malaria is endemic in (or to) hot, moist climates. A pandemic is a widespread epidemic that may affect entire continents or even the world: the pandemic of 1918 ushered in a period of frequent epidemics of gradually diminishing severity. Thus, from an epidemiologist’s point of view, the Black Death in Europe and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are pandemics rather than epidemics

Early 17th century (as an adjective): from French épidémique, from épidémie, via late Latin from Greek epidēmia ‘prevalence of disease’, from epidēmios ‘prevalent’, from epi ‘upon’ + dēmos ‘the people’.

Tobacco is a plant. There is no such thing as an epidemic of plants. The authors of the FCTC seem to believe that in forests and farms and gardens they are witnessing plant epidemics.

If they believe that there is a tobacco epidemic, with tobacco plants becoming superabundant, do they want to wipe out the tobacco plant? Are tobacco plants harmful to humans, in the way that stinging nettles and thorn bushes can be? To the best of my knowledge, there’s no danger from tobacco plants, because they don’t have thorns or barbs.

Most likely what they really mean by a “tobacco epidemic” is that there is an epidemic of people smoking tobacco. But is that an epidemic disease either? If a lot of people choose to do something, does that make it an epidemic? If lots of people buy and read books, does that mean that there is a “book epidemic”? Is there a Framework Convention on Book Control to accompany the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control? If not, why not?

The answer to this would seem to be that the authors of the FCTC believe that smoking tobacco is in itself a disease. It’s not so much that they think that there are diseases that are the consequences of smoking tobacco (e.g. lung cancer). It is instead that they regard the act of smoking tobacco as itself being a malady, and they regard smokers as sick people, and as much in need of treatment as people who are suffering from leprosy or cholera or any other disease. They would list “tobacco smoking” as a disease just like pneumonia or epilepsy.

They also see tobacco smoking as an involuntary affliction, like catching ‘flu. In their view, smokers no more wish to catch the tobacco smoking disease than lepers want to get leprosy. They regard tobacco smokers as helpless addicts, as wedded to their addiction as lepers are wedded to leprosy.

But why not say the same of reading books? Aren’t avid book readers as much addicts of the written word as smokers are addicts of tobacco? Aren’t authors like J K Rowling peddlers of a kind of addictive drug, which has the effect of making people sit for hours with their eyes fixed on pages that they slowly turn? Aren’t television sets as addictive as books as well? And aren’t the addictions of reading books and watching television far more dangerous than tobacco, because – unlike tobacco – these books and TV sets transmit ideas which are very often ‘go viral’ (e.g. the Communist Manifesto)?

Anyway, the fact that the authors of the FCTC chose to call it a “tobacco epidemic” rather than a “lung cancer epidemic” strongly suggests that they see the real disease as being that of smoking tobacco rather than getting lung cancer as a consequence of smoking tobacco. They would seem to believe that simply being a tobacco smoker is in itself an affliction, quite regardless of any consequences that might result from smoking. For them, smoking is the disease from which smokers suffer. And even if all smokers enjoyed the best of health in other respects, they would still wish to “cure” smokers of the disease of smoking.

I don’t think smoking is itself a disease. I don’t think that reading books or watching television is a disease either. I think epidemic diseases are transmissible diseases that pass from person to person, and neither tobacco nor books nor TV is this.

And I think that the “tobacco epidemic” in the FCTC is going to come back to haunt the  WHO one day. For it is evidence that the medical profession has lost its way, when it starts to classify behaviours like smoking as epidemic diseases, when they are not.

About Frank Davis

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11 Responses to The Tobacco Epidemic

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Nice thinking!

  2. Timothy Goodacre says:

    These people should butt out of peoples lives. If people enjoy smoking tobacco its up to them. Nor should their pleasures be taxed out of existence. Look what has happened with the plain packaging epidemic. Favourite quality brands disappear or are taxed away forcing people to import from abroad. The nanny state loses the income.

  3. Clicky says:

  4. Smoking Lamp says:

    There is certainly no tobacco epidemic. Beyond that blaming smoking for amy and all diseases is absolute nonsense. The antismoking sentiment is based on bias, lies, and exaggeration. Antismoking activism is a social virus of intolerance and hate.

  5. Joe L. says:

    the fact that the authors of the FCTC chose to call it a “tobacco epidemic” rather than a “lung cancer epidemic” strongly suggests that they see the real disease as being that of smoking tobacco rather than getting lung cancer as a consequence of smoking tobacco.

    I’ll take this a step further: they see the real disease as being that of enjoying tobacco in any of its forms.

    In recent years, with the rise of vaping, many people have become convinced that vaping is somehow “safer” than smoking because there is no combustion involved. This belief implies that it is the process of combustion which generates the magical carcinogens from inert tobacco leaves.

    However, if this was actually true, then why have the Healthists also demanded that (at least in the U.S.) smokeless tobacco products (chewing tobacco, snus, etc.) also be labeled with statements such as, “WARNING: This product can cause mouth cancer”? There is no combustion or even any heating involved with chewing tobacco, yet it can also cause cancer (but in the mouth, rather than the lungs, conveniently)? Their goal is to brainwash the public into believing that tobacco can cause any part of the body which routinely comes in contact with it or one of its byproducts to become cancerous.

    Warnings like these make it clear to me that there is a concerted effort to demonize all of the recreational uses of the tobacco plant, hence the choice of the term “tobacco epidemic”, rather than “lung cancer epidemic” or even “smoking epidemic”.

    • Mark Jarratt says:

      Totally accurate. Emotive misuse of medical terminology to brainwash the population and empower intolerance. Smokers are a higher proportion of the population than LBGTIQ (POQ & NCB) but we are reviled, robbed and persecuted relentlessly. It is not democracy, it is mob rule akin to witch hunting. Enjoying tobacco is not a medical condition, but a recreational choice. Stop the bullies.

  6. slugbop007 says:

    Happy New Year Mr. Davis and everybody else,

    The WHO and all its enablers and supporters consider tobacco smoke a communicable disease. That’s why the SECONDHANDSMOKE strategy has been so effective. Tobacco Control has succeeded in giving the impression that tobacco smoke has permanently envelopped and inundated every nook and cranny of air space on Planet Earth and that every creature that resides on terra firma has been adversely, irreparably affected by its supposedly lingering after effects. These people exaggerate more than Chicken Little:


  7. beobrigitte says:


    The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) is the first treaty negotiated under the auspices of the World Health Organization. The WHO FCTC is an evidence-based treaty that reaffirms the right of all people to the highest standard of health.
    Wouldn’t “the right of all people to the highest standard of health” mean that EVERYBODY will have equal access to the latest developed, thus hellishly expensive treatment for, e.g. diseases (often cancers) caused by micro-organisms or organ transplants regardless age?

    Tobacco? The baby-boomers are living proof that tobacco control is just a bunch of people who is obsessed with hating tobacco smoke.

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