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We need total commitment to stop this mass poisoning

The New Straits Times, March 31, 2002

By Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

THERE can never be a better back-up to last week's column supporting the implementation of the fatwa on smoking, than the news report "Tobacco firm to compensate family", (NST, Mar 24). This timely piece of news, more than anything else, demonstrates conclusively yet again the deadly dangers of smoking. The verdict to indict the world's biggest and most powerful tobacco company is reason enough to endorse the National Fatwa Council declaration that smoking is haram.

Considering that the tobacco company is being ordered to pay a staggering US$150 million (RM570 million) to the family of a deceased smoker, it could safely be said that classifying smoking as haram would be accurate, based on strong, up-to-date evidence.

After all, this is not the first time such huge sums (although later reduced on appeal) have been awarded to plaintiffs in smoking-related cases by the US courts.

For example, last year saw the largest single award to date by a California judge against the same tobacco company. It was ordered to pay US$3 billion. And in the Florida class-action suit, the industry experienced the most costly courtroom loss amounting to US$145 billion (RM550 billion) in punitive damages.

In the present lawsuit, the Oregon judgment found Philip Morris "negligent and fraudulent in pitching so-called ‘light' cigarettes to consumers as a safer product and alternative to dropping the bad habit".

It was argued that the deceased client "was addicted to tobacco" and "switched to low-tar cigarettes because Philip Morris misrepresented them as safer than regular cigarettes".

Allegedly, the tobacco company also "intentionally made fraudulent misrepresentations about its tobacco products, including misrepresentations about adverse health effects, the addictive nature of its tobacco products, and their contents", (NST, Mar 24).

The lawsuit, being the first involving ‘light' cigarettes, is being hailed as another landmark victory. As pointed out in Boston.com: "People have been deceived or fooled into thinking that switching to a lowtar cigarette is healthier for them." Indeed, it alleged that labelling cigarettes as low-tar is a fraud, since they do not provide the health benefits implied.

Despite the label, they can be just as harmful since smokers are getting the same amount of tar as they puff more often on their cigarettes and/or smoke them closer to the butt. In other words, low-tar cigarette smokers tend to compensate by inhaling deeper, longer or puffing more often on their cigarettes, as testified by research findings. According to the US Federal Trade Com-mission (May 2000), "many lower tar cigarettes have filters with very fine vent holes in the sides". This is "to dilute the smoke in each puff" by allowing air in when the cigarette is smoked.

But in reality this is not necessarily the case, as smokers (who are not aware of the vents or its functions) tend to place their fingers over the vents unintentionally. This results in more tar and nicotine being inhaled. And how much depends on the extent to which the vent holes are blocked, in addition to how deep and how often they puff on the cigarette.

As such, low-tar cigarettes can be made to deliver just as much tar and nicotine as ‘normal' or regular cigarettes, contrary to what is desired. It therefore does not eliminate the health risks of smoking as claimed by the manufacturer (www.ftc.gov/-bcp/conline/pubs/alerts/smokealkrt.html). To regard low-tar cigarettes as safe is thus ridiculous. More so to compare with food items, as appeared last week in the Sunday Mail in an article deviously entitled: "How not to discourage smoking." The article, while questioning the fuss over the imposition of the fatwa on smoking, liken the ill effects of smoking to that of drinking soda, or eating chips, fast food, and mamak food.

What seems to be missing is the fact that the tar is toxic tar and it often kills rather than heals, like food does. We tend to forget that food is not addictive, unlike cigarettes, low-tar or not. In short, it is like comparing apples with oranges. This is what the tobacco industry seeks to do to make us believe that there is such a thing as safer cigarettes, be they ‘mild', ‘light' or ‘ultra-light'.

Clearly there no such a thing, as the Oregon case reaffirms. Indeed, the tobacco industry is superb at such sleight of hand, diverting attention away from the hazardous nature of its products, disguising it behind a smokescreen if you will. Millions are spent on advertising and promotional campaigns (albeit indirectly). Up against the unmatched resources of the industry, the logical recourse is to gainfully use legalistic means (including religious ones) to assert control and change in protecting the nation from this senseless sentence of death.

There are many choices available to us, but we lack the commitment. This is the case now as we continue to play into the hands of the industry by allowing almost unlimited sponsorship for sporting events and entertainment. Such compromises must be stopped when lives are exchanged for undisclosed tobacco-laced dollars.

o Please send your response to The National Poison Centre at Universiti Sains Malaysia, tel: 04-6570099, fax: 04-6568417, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  Recommended site: www.ash.org.uk/html/regulation/html/big-one.html  

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