Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Gates, Bloomberg Target Cigarettes

Billionaires pledge $500 million, but will it do any good?

If money were all it took, tobacco smoking would be on the run after Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg jointly pledged last month to fight tobacco use worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries, through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Johns Hopkins University.

Mayor Bloomberg, who has been involved in anti-smoking campaigns for years, admitted at a joint news conference that "all the money in the world will never eradicate tobacco. But this partnership underscores how much the tide is turning against this deadly epidemic."

The program, put together by Bloomberg and Dr. Margaret Chan of the World Health Organization (WHO), is an ambitious, multi-faceted effort to be coordinated by the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, the WHO, the World Lung Foundation, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As Donald G. McNeil described the $500 million program, dubbed Mpower, in the July 24 New York Times: "It will urge governments to sharply raise tobacco taxes, prohibit smoking in publics places, outlaw advertising to children and cigarette giveaways, start antismoking advertising campaigns and offer people nicotine patches or other help quitting." The program also intends to bring "health officials, consumer advocates, journalists, tax officers and others from third world countries" to the U.S. for workshops and training.

It will not be the first such effort--far from it. Troubled by the rising tide of nicotine dependence among the common folk, Bavaria, Saxony, Zurich, and other European states outlawed tobacco at various times during the 17th Century. The Sultan Murad IV decreed the death penalty for smoking tobacco in Constantinople, and the first of the Romanoff czars decreed that the punishment for smoking was the slitting of the offender’s nostrils.

In America, the Prohibition years from 1920 to 1933 coincided with a short-lived effort to prohibit cigarettes. Leaving no stone unturned in the battle to eliminate drugs and alcohol from American life, Henry Ford and Thomas Edison joined forces to wage a public campaign against the “little white slavers.” Edison and Ford wanted to stamp out cigarette smoking in the office and the factory. Although that effort would have to wait another 75 years or so, New York City did manage to pass an ordinance prohibiting women from smoking in public. (See Siegel, Ronald K. Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise). Fourteen states eventually enacted various laws prohibiting or restricting cigarettes. By 1927, all such laws had been repealed.

Finally, Adolf Hitler himself took on the battle against cigarettes--and lost. In 1942, after letting loose a torrent of misbegotten screed about "the wrath of the Red Man against the White Man," Hitler, in one of the most aggressive anti-smoking campaigns in history, banned smoking in public places and slapped heavy taxes on tobacco. But by the mid-1950s, smoking in Germany exceeded prewar levels.

There is no evidence to suggest that any culture that has ever taken up the smoking of tobacco has ever wholly relinquished the practice voluntarily.

Photo Credit: National Health Service

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