The last gasp

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

The one good, vengeful thing that the Red Injuns gave to the West was a stinky, filthy, addictive, noxious wad of goo, which virtually made a reeking tabagie out of the English court. Over time, it slipped from being Sir Walter Raleigh's court status symbol to possibly the biggest mass murderer of all time: tobacco, the "Indian weed".

But it took its time plummeting: it was a long drop from platitudes to pejoratives, from Shakespeare's "thou weed, who art so lovely fair and smell'st so sweet", Byron's "sublime tobacco", and Spencer's "divine tobacco", to Jonson's "that tawney weed" and Cowper's "pernicious weed". By the end of the 19th century, tobacco was touted as the one-off antidote for just about anything under the sun. The killer weed even took on a corrupted version of Tiruchchirappalli -- Trichinopoly -- where it was ostensibly grown, English being marvellously adroit at co-opting foreign words into its capacious body.

The anti-tobacco drive began in right earnest about half a century ago, after links between the weed and cancer became medically incontrovertible. But that didn't stop the tobacco lobby from hardselling its products, even to children too young for the vice. The Western anti-tobacco army countered with some facts that the increasingly environmentally-disposed public found unpalatable: like the fact that you knock off 7 minutes of your life with every cigarette; that tobacco monopolises some of the most fertile, well-irrigated land in the world; that intensive fertiliser inputs into tobacco are far more than in any other crop; that tobacco is poverty-line labour intensive. And that it is not only tobacco that is poison but also the process of growing it.

Unfortunately, all that the anti-tobacco lobby has succeeded in doing is relocating the cigarette manufacturers from an increasingly hostile First World to a wide open, dollar-starved Third World. And that means that their major targets are India and China, both countries whose indigenous cigarettes are inarguably some of the best in the world, but who have neither the advertising acumen of First World cigarette manufacturers nor the mega-dollars that could fund a global ad blitz.

The only way to stop this one-way traffic, deleterious to the national health, is to put your foot down -- like, for instance, Malaysia and Singapore -- and make the mud stick on the multinational cigarette makers. Desultory exhortations like "Cigarette smoking could be bad for your health" on the packets make no impact and solve no problems of tobacco-related diseases. What will work is increasing the territories where smoking is banned till the last of the obdurate smokers is driven to a corner. Literally. And let the damned business go up in a puff of smoke.

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