Few who saw Tasmanian Premier Jim Bacon on television saying he has been a fool about smoking will ever forget his moving words. Politicians rarely admit mistakes. But here was one whose every pore told us he had gone dreadfully wrong. Jim Bacon believes his cancer is entirely his fault. He ignored his doctors. Bacon is just 53. He would have taken up smoking in the late 1960s, nearly 20 years after Sir Richard Doll first published his famous study showing the link to lung cancer.
All his life he would have often heard that cigarettes were coffin nails, and that they stunted the growth, as Lord Baden Powell told generations of scouts. Is personal idiocy, as Jim Bacon called it, all that is to be said about one in five Australians smoking today?
Or is there anything to be said about the role of the tobacco industry in getting their multi-million dollar campaigns under the skin of generations of kids like the young Jim Bacon?
What of the decades of advertising promising that Benson and Hedges was for when only the best would do, or when the potent, lantern jawed Marlboro cowboy spoke to every desk-bound clerk thinking better of themselves.
My research group at the University of Sydney has just published a collection of papers detailing decades of internal memos from Australia’s tobacco companies. We raked through acres of often stomach churning material describing how the industry tried to “reassure” smokers they had nothing to worry about. In the 1950s after the Doll report, the local tobacco industry began quickly to supply tobacco retailers with “some convincing arguments to pass back to nervous customers”. They kept this up until the end of the 1990s when, crushed under the weight of revelations from their own pens, they finally admitted that smoking killed and nicotine was addictive.
In the intervening years they bank-rolled a succession of tame scientists to do media tours explaining that air pollution was the villain, that everything from Brussels Sprouts to bubblebath (seriously) caused health problems, so why all the fuss about cigarettes? They fiddled with the formula for Marlboro to “make it harder for existing smokers to leave the product”. And they noted that DDT residue in all samples of Australian leaf shipped to Switzerland for analysis was at “extremely” high levels. Consumers were told nothing.
In 1984 I debated the then head of the Tobacco Institute, John Dollisson, on Ita Buttrose’s radio program. A caller with lung cancer phoned in, saying she thought her “nerves” had caused her cancer, not her smoking. Dollisson congratulated her on her open-mindedness. I play the tape today to my students.
When a few brave souls with cancer have suggested to courts that as 14 year olds, they were impressed by tobacco advertising and somewhere had picked up that scientists were always changing their minds about what caused cancer, talkback radio has erupted and called them gold diggers. Jim Bacon is not blaming anyone but himself, and in that he brings the maturity of an eyes wide open adult vision to something that took root in him as a child. A person who smokes a pack a day for 35 years pulls about 3.8 million lungfulls of smoke down over the pink linings of their airwaves. They spend small fortunes. Collectively, they spend millions on quit products, with many failing to quit again and again, so powerful is the addiction. And yet Jim Bacon wants to blame himself.
The Bacon government has announced that there will be a total ban on pub smoking in Tasmania, although hasn’t named a final date. How fitting it would be if his colleagues were to mark his wonderful contribution to public life by making Tasmania the first state to implement the inevitable.
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