The only real question left for the final episodes of Mad Men to answer is whether Don Draper will develop a throat or a lung cancer. In a lucky strike the chain-smoking alcoholic has managed to keep his handsome looks and snow-white American teeth. But that’s television, of course. Nonetheless, the realities of the human body have not stopped tobacco companies arguing against the harmful ways of their product in the name of intellectual property and financial losses. As the only ones who did not get the memo when the health risks of smoking were disclosed, the tobacco business has happily strolled so far as to sue states because of health policies being against the industry’s profits.

Following the example put forward by Australia in 2012, the UK government is now expected to push through legislation that would put cigarettes in plain (or standardised) packaging. As the number one cause of preventable deaths, smoking is the primary cause of around 100,000 deaths in the UK annually. The current coalition government promised to tackle the issue already in November 2010, but due to heavy lobbying from the tobacco industry the matter quickly lost its importance especially with the Conservatives going back and forth around the topic like a weathervane. However, the upcoming elections seem to have turned the direction of the winds again, as the polls suggest that a clear majority of the voters do indeed support the standardised packaging of cigarettes.

Alongside lung cancer, smoking increases the risk of developing a range of conditions from heart attack and pneumonia to impotence and reduced fertility. Happy thoughts. Which is exactly why the tobacco business has had to rely on paid research sponsored by the industry. In 2013, a study was published that stated that cigarettes are good for your brain as smoking helps with cognition and relaxation. Maybe, if you are already addicted to the substance – a fact that the industry also denied for decades because it worked against their stance that smoking was completely up to one’s choice. It is no surprise the research was funded by British American Tobacco – one of the largest in the field.

And despite the manufacturers publicly questioning the causality between smoking and lung cancer, the research has shown estimates where 80-90 per cent of lung cancers are directly linked to smoking. Similarly, the problem of secondhand smoking has been eagerly denied by the business, even though the Action on Smoking and Health campaign reports an estimated 10,700 deaths a year in the UK due to domestic exposure to smoking. Yet, the tobacco firms have year after year shown more interest towards their public image and revenues than human lives.

Suing countries with health policies harmful to the revenue and market share of the tobacco industry is to become a standard as measures such as standardised packaging become more common. The ‘this policy will damage our profits’ excuse has already been used in lawsuits against states like Uruguay and Australia on the basis of bilateral trade deals involving investor-state dispute settlement – an issue that should also be noted in the current TTIP trade agreement negotiations between the EU and the US.

Equally, the manufacturers have taken to paying smaller countries such as Ukraine, Honduras and Dominican Republic to speak against the health policy measures in WTO negotiations. This has meant that the aforementioned states have, (for instance) spoken against Australia’s cigarette packaging rules and tried to stall the WTO debate on the subject matter.

Clearly, however, we cannot allow a situation to grow where big business possesses the means to invalidate a government policy based on a claim of lost money. For goodness sake, they do not even pay their taxes properly to begin with. Governments should certainly have the right to demand some of that lost income from the manufacturers.

The business cannot be given the right to deny its responsibility. Although it is largely the individual’s own choice – be it under group pressure or not – whether or not he or she starts smoking, it needs to be understood that this does not happen in a vacuum. It is not a case of mere consumer-producer relations when we are talking about a problem that, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causes more deaths per year in America than firearms, HIV, drug use, alcohol abuse, and traffic accidents combined. Thus, we cannot expect the state and its health services to solely take care of the consequences while denying them the right to control public habits so draining to their resources.

The manufacturers are on the barricades. Unsurprisingly, the British American Tobacco vowed instantly to fight against the British Government’s plan to introduce plain packaging. One of the main concerns of the business has been the increase of Chinese counterfeit products and tobacco smuggling, which was one of the main reasons why the legislation for standardised packaging was initially postponed in the UK. However, this has so far been an utterly unsupported argument in Australia and elsewhere, and despite the industry’s predictions, the Australian Customs authorities have not recorded any escalation in tobacco smuggling.

The measures taken by governments around the globe will not suddenly end smoking altogether. After all, cigarettes are cool and exciting – only proof you need is a picture of Bob Dylan from the 1960s. However, maybe cigarettes are only cool in a similar manner that action heroes are – because they can kill.

Health policies should not be decided on corporational cost evaluation. Liberties come with responsibilities attached, and radical individualism is not an excuse to let the marketers off the hook while leaving those who actually pay their taxes to deal with the consequences.

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