Alan Duff: Capitalism is great, but selling death isn't

Entrenched respectability of many cigarette companies puts the hapless smoking addict at a disadvantage.
Selling death in packets gets you rich, legally. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Selling death in packets gets you rich, legally. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Cigarette companies are proof that, if you get an early start, you join the ranks of the respectable. Safe for lifetime after lifetime.

Every cigarette company hates plain-packaging, as it prevents an image being sold. Tax they don't mind, as big price increases can be buried in that big mound of tax. Big shareholders live in mansions and fly the globe in private jets, reward for selling a product that's killed millions of smokers. Governments love them for the tax gain but don't like the adverse attention from anti-smoking campaigners. But hardly any of these exist in the Third World.

Selling death in packets gets you rich, legally. Sell them singly in a New York park, like one African-American did two years ago, and a cop will put you in a chokehold leaving you dead. The dude didn't belong to the Respectable Club, the guys up in their flying boardrooms discussing what African country to give out free cigarettes to and for how long before the tactic works and they have another few million addicts.

The dumbass corner dope or crack dealer gets busted and in America he gets 20, 25 years in jail. Silly ghetto dwellers, you're not allowed to peddle products that cause death and misery. Certain people got that right generations ago and don't intend giving it up.

Respectability's like that: After a while no one thinks to challenge your credentials. You're just there like you've always been. And, since you're sitting at the top of the pile, it must be that you did something fine and good and necessarily highly profitable. Plus the state makes a lot of dough from taxing your product.

New Zealand has led the world in successful anti-smoking campaigns which became bylaws and bans and made smoking more and more socially unacceptable. A laudable community good that has worked in most of the West. But not where most people live: in Asia, Africa, South America and Eastern Europe.

If a company sold glass shards in pill form, we'd all holler they be locked up, if not executed. But not when you're respectable, upstanding citizens, Anglo-Saxon or state-owned like some cigarette companies, or a big, faceless corporate.

Now, in case it's forgotten, I love capitalism. But capitalism with a heart. (I steer away from that word conscience as too holier than thou.) Not Wall St blood-sucking vampire squids. Not the world's big banks, or pitiless insurance companies. I mean those who use our capitalist system to make a living more or less ethically. Selling fags is not ethical.

If a pharmaceutical company sells a product deemed a public health risk, that product is ordered by government authorities to be immediately withdrawn. Not so cigarettes. In the United States' more litigious society, lawyers have extracted billions in settlements from cigarette firms. But the firms have made hundreds of billions in profit.

Yes, some of my venom is that of a reformed smoker and with a thought for Maori relations who died of lung cancer in their forties and fifties. Not excusing them for taking up the habit. But if your relation died of a heroin overdose, you'd want justice meted out to the suppliers.

- NZ Herald

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Alan Duff

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