Who Pays the Cost of Smoking?


By Bex Thompson (Staff Writer)

Just over 50 year ago the Royal College of Physicians published the ‘Smoking and Health’ report which stated the fatal health implications associated with tobacco consumption. However in 2011, it was estimated that 10 million adults still smoke cigarettes in the UK alone[1].

In a recent dispute with the World Health Organisation (WHO), the British American Tobacco company argued that tobacco control infringed upon the individual’s right of choice[2]. Nevertheless, the release of internal documents in 1992 revealed that many tobacco companies were manipulating nicotine to make it as addictive as possible. Effectively, as addiction expert Jack Henningfield at the John Hopkins University school of Medicine articulated, ‘the modern cigarette does to nicotine what crack does to cocaine’[3]. Arguably, when subject to physical and psychological addiction, a persons ability to 'choose' is significantly depleted.  While cigarettes are manufactured to be highly addictive, studies conducted by the WHO suggest in developing countries, many smokers are unaware of the risks of tobacco use. In China, for example, most smokers thought smoking caused them little or no harm[4]. Evidently, tobacco companies are not too concerned with ensuring that their customer’s choice be well informed, so long as there is a steady stream of regular tobacco users.

While tobacco consumers continue to believe that smoking is an individual choice, that freedom is not apparent for the estimated 80,000 Malawian children who work on Tobacco farms[5]. Many of these children suffer from Green Tobacco Sickness which is caused by the intake of nicotine through the skin. Because no protective clothing is provided, child labourers absorb approximately 54 milligrams of nicotine or the equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes daily[6]. The tobacco picked by these children is found in blends of nearly every cigarette that is smoked in the developed world. Smokers often claim that their addiction is a matter of individual choice. However, this freedom to choose involves the arduous work of child labourers on tobacco farms who have little or no choice in the matter. Arguably, the freedoms of a developed country depend on freedoms in developing countries being violated.


As tobacco control gains momentum, the tobacco industry attempts to justify its production practices by claiming that developing countries benefit economically. However, while Malawian child labourers earn approximately 1p an hour, the chief executive of Philip Morris - the company that owns a multitude of brands including Marlboro and Benson and Hedges - ranks 20th on the Forbes rich list. In 2012, he was estimated to be worth $30.08 million[7].  Tobacco farming is demanding and production costs are high. Despite being a cash-crop, tobacco takes 3000 hours of labour per hectare. This is in contrast with the production of maize or beans which take approximately 200-300[8]. Furthermore, contracts between farmers and tobacco companies are binding and overwhelmingly the profits go to the companies, leaving many farmers in debt. Subsequently, tobacco production perpetuates a cycle of poverty[9].

It is not just the producers who are trapped in this vicious poverty cycle. The WHO reported that disadvantaged households are spending more of their income on tobacco products. This is due to the way addiction to nicotine compels individuals to spend money on cigarettes regardless of whether they can purchase food and other necessities[10]. It is therefore clear that once addicted to tobacco, the consumer no longer has any choice over their smoking habits. Thus, while ‘Big Tobacco’ continues to profit from the exploitation of both their producers and their consumers, the only winners in this situation are the elite of the industry.

As an R. J. Reynolds industry executive aptly summarised ‘we don’t smoke the shit, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid’[11].

[1]Calculation derived from ONS Population Estimates, mid-2012 (England & Wales), General Register Officefor Scotland, 2012. Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, Smoking habits amongst adults, 2012. ONS, Sept. 2013

[2]Co-Opting the Health and Human Rights Movements.Jacobson, Peter and Soheil, 2002.

[3] Ending the Tobacco Holocaust. Rabinoff, 2006.

[4] Tobacco and poverty: A vicious circle. World Health Organization, 2004.

[5] Hard work, long hours and little pay. Plan, 2009.

[6]Green tobacco sickness in children and adolescents. McKnight, R.H. and Spiller, H.A. 2005.

[7]Pan Europe Tobacco. Citi Investment Research & Analysis, 2010.

[8] A Poison Crop – Tobacco in Brazil. Pesticide Action Network Briefing Paper, Angela Cordeiro, et al. 1998.

[9] Tobacco and poverty: A vicious circle. World Health Organization, 2004.

[10] Tobacco and poverty: A vicious circle. World Health Organization, 2004.

[11] Former US model Dave Goerlitz – who appeared in Winston cigarette advertising – recounting comments of a tobacco industry executive. Deposition of DAVID GOERLITZ, 1998. http://legacy.library.ucsf.edu/tid/ufr07a00