Playing Hearst for the War on Tobacco

After the New York Times played the Hearst role in convincing the public there was actually a reason for the Iraq war, we have no capacity for for further shooting wars, so the NYT now seems to restrict its warmongering to the wars on drugs, tobacco, fast food, “chemicals”, salt, and other targets of scaremongering and public health fascism.  When they report on tobacco policy they are basically transcribing the drug warrior position, much like they did with the Iraq war.  Like their Bush Administration reporting from the White House, this serve no one other than those who are using them as stenographers.

In the paper’s top story Sunday, reporter Duff Wilson transcribe the tobacco warrior’s party line in the lead up to the FCTC meetings in Uruguay.  In fairness, the article includes a tiny bit of “balance” down the page, with quotes from a few who disagree.  But the contrary views are reported as one person’s opinion, while the party line is stated as facts, even the bits that are empirically false (that smoking rates in the West have “fallen precipitously” recently; display bans are a “proven method” of reducing smoking) and the completely unsupported assertions (like that the industry as “ramped up its efforts” because of the upcoming FCTC meetings).

The theme of the story (and another highlighted tobacco story by the same author published the same day that focused on Indonesia) was the usual fiction that tobacco use is caused entirely by the legal supply (i.e., the “big tobacco” companies), having nothing to do with demand.  Sadly, there is a lot of room for honest reporting to call the industry to task for not aggressively marketing low-risk alternatives to smoking – and calling the governments to task for not letting them.  But by just parroting the anti-tobacco extremist party line, reporters do nothing for public health or the dying profession of journalism.

The hook is the claim (sort of attributed, to unidentified WHO officials, making it slightly different from just stating it as fact) is that Philip Morris International was trying to “intimidate” the government of Uruguay by challenging some of their anti-tobacco rules as violating trade treaties.  The story claims that PMI filled a lawsuit, somehow not fact checking enough to learn that though this is the political spin, it is an appeal to arbitration under the terms  of a commercial treaty between Uruguay and Switzerland (where PMI is based).  It focuses on labeling requirements that basically make it impossible for PMI (or others) to communicate their brand.  The report failed to explain it is not actually a lawsuit (how could it be, unless it was a challenge under Uruguay’s own constitution? it is rather difficult to sue a government for its policy choices — on the other hand, the reporter originally referred to Uruguay’s “gross domestic profit” until it was later corrected to “product”, so perhaps he did not actually understand much about political economy).  Nor did it mention that the claim focuses on attempts at brand destruction, not actual anti-smoking measures.  And, besides, how exactly does an entity without an army or even any desperately needed IP or local assets (like Microsoft, Google, Chiquita, Goldman, IMF, etc.) intimidate a sovereign state?  Don’t know – it was not explained in the story, only asserted.

In short, the company was asking that the provisions of a commercial treaty be enforced in a situation where they believe they are suffering the confiscation of their equity and intellectual property.  Gee, a company would have to be totally evil to try to enforce their legal rights like that.  If Uruguay wanted to ban smoking and PMI fought that, it might be a different story, one that was about how people should live rather than brand equity, but this is a simply case of commercial property rights.  Of course, the FCTC crowd want to make it appear to be something more, and to make it appear that PMI somehow has the upper hand when they and their competitors are the only ones who either lose or merely break even in this fight.  Somehow any critical analysis of their spin was missing from the story.

Also missing from both stories is even the vaguest awareness that people smoke because they want to and, indeed, that consumers are far and away the most important stakeholder.  Interestingly, the final word in the main story is given to a tobacco growers spokesman: “We all know the real objective here is to eliminate tobacco consumption”.  But that is left unexplored.

That’s were the story should begin.  Whatever happened to reporting?

It would be so great to see an honest hard-hitting piece of journalism about tobacco policy and the tobacco industry.  The reporter would need to learn a bit more than health reporters seem to understand about tobacco harm reduction, about the benefits of tobacco use and why people like to smoke, as well as delving into the politics of hatred and the bizarre bug in some people’s brains that causes them to want to prevent others from indulging in certain life-improving activities that some people like and others do not (i.e., being anti toward nicotine, pornography, marijuana, homosexuality, alcohol, inter-racial coupling, etc.  – the targets changes but the “I don’t like that so you shouldn’t be allowed to do it” attitudes are the same).  With that education, the reporter could effectively challenge the industry for what it genuinely does wrong rather than just reciting anything it does an implying that whatever it does must be wrong, as the antis who control the discourse do.  This would call for no small dose of criticizing what the antis do wrong also. 

No one should ever again trust the NYT when it reports there are good reasons for starting a war.  They have demonstrated that they will blindly parrot the false claims of the warmongers.  Similarly, there is no information content in them reporting that the tobacco industry has done something bad, since they have demonstrated that they cannot tell the difference between “the industry acted” and “the industry sinned”.  If someone really wants to report what is wrong in this arena, they need to understand what is reasonable expected human and corporate behavior.  Only then can they challenge what (on both sides) is not reasonable, ethical, or acceptable in a free world.

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