Losing my addiction

As I write, I have not smoked a cigarette for a week.

The last time I achieved this feat R.J.L. Hawke and George H.W. Bush were in office, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics stretched from the Urals to the Pacific Ocean, the Batman movie that was popular in cinemas was directed by Tim Burton, and Taylor Swift was a foetus.

I was different, too. I had a mullet and an acne problem exacerbated by devoting a large part of my disposable income to Mars Bars. I lived in North Queensland and I had a bold and original plan to make a living playing bass guitar. Clearly I was in no state to be making major life decisions.

Society agreed. It would be three years before I was allowed to drink, vote or marry, and a year before I could have heterosexual intercourse (a milestone which would turn out to be entirely theoretical in its implications).

And yet I was able, with no trouble beyond that occasioned by my parents whenever they caught me, to acquire enough Peter Jackson menthol cigarettes, then priced at a dollar for a pack of fifteen, to thoroughly establish a lifelong addiction to nicotine. I frequently bought these in school uniform, and the shopkeepers of Townsville didn’t bat an eyelid. At an age where I found any other systematic or concerted actions impossible, I was allowed to acquire a disease of the brain – a prevalent current clinical view of addiction –  which has no doubt, in the intervening quarter century, led me at least to the early stages of a range of other physical diseases.

There’s no point in anyone now arguing that then, and wherever and whenever regulators allowed them to get away with it, tobacco companies marketed cigarettes to children, and tried to make it as easy as possible for young people to begin smoking. Long after they and everyone else knew for sure that their products inexorably and horribly killed a sizeable proportion of their customers, they continued to target products like cheap, small packs of minty-fresh darts – only a small step up from “Fags” lollies – at L-plate smokers.

In doing this they were following a long-established established business model, and trying to monetise the otherwise fleeting, apron-string-cutting tantrum that is mid-adolescence. The aim was to wring  a long-term income stream from people at their dumbest ebb. (Researchers have since discovered that adolescence may be a uniquely vulnerable time for the development of addictions – something the tobacco companies stumbled on early.) They hoped the money would roll in for years, until the addicted smoker gave up or better still died in the harness, either from smoking or with a serious disease resulting from it.

Some smokers who emerged from the peak stupid of these years with a serious addiction might eventually die of lung cancer caused by smoking. Some others, of course, might die from cancer of the bladder, kidney, pancreas, stomach, cervix, oesophagus, larynx, mouth or throat caused by smoking. Some might die early from cardiovascular disease, others after years of misery from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They might die from the complications – always worse for smokers – of the other serious diseases they are more likely to develop, like diabetes.

Tobacco companies marketed their products to teenagers in my lifetime. They marketed them to me. The product they sell is nothing more than addiction and harm. They privatise profits made from addicts, the costs of whose almost inevitable serious illnesses are socialised in many different ways. The moral standing of these companies is non-existent, and if there is any industry more bereft of redeeming qualities, I am not aware of it. (Even the arms industry has a better alibi.)

So I was happy to see the High Court agree last week with the Federal Government that they were allowed restrict tobacco companies to offering their products to market in plain packaging. The tobacco companies themselves made the legal argument that the laws were effectively an acquisition of intellectual property, which under the constitution entitled them to massive compensation. The Court ruled that no property had been acquired. So that’s that.

They’ve made other arguments in the less rigorous court of public opinion. But these are even more spurious. The idea that this will raise smoking rates by causing tobacco companies to compete on price, and causing smokers to buy and smoke more, is at one level not much more than an invitation to raise the floor price with further excises. But it’s extraordinary in implying that limiting the smoking rate is probably a laudable goal, and that price actually keeps the rate in check.

The idea that plain packaging will make it easier for smugglers to bring cigarettes into Australia is not a concern for public health policy, but for law enforcement and customs. And in any case it’s simply hot air – there’s no evidence that this will happen, just assertion. There’s plenty of evidence running the other way, showing that the restrictions progressively applied to smoking, and the long succession of signals sent about the social acceptability of smoking have been accompanied by a progressive decline in the smoking rate. And I would say that my decision to try quitting again has been occasioned, in part, by the signal sent out here, and the promise that the sensory economy of smoking will be diminished just a little further, and the smoker’s humiliation will be just a little closer to being complete.

Big tobacco’s fellow travellers – paid-up and otherwise – tend to make arguments that are simply disingenuous. The idea that smoking tobacco represents a free choice which should be respected, and which government is currently infringing on, is risible. It simply brackets off the physiological and psychological realities of addiction. It relies on a model of human volition that is rooted in a period before addiction had been scientifically described and when medical science was, on the whole, primitive. It is premised on the model of the human person which, in the light of subsequent discovery, is on a par with primitive religious belief.

The way in which substances like nicotine work on our brain’s reward circuit is still even now somewhat controversial. But the short version is that they are kind of neurobiological malware, which turn the brain’s valuable capacity for affording us pleasure into a means of enslavement.

The brain’s pleasure chemical, dopamine, is there to reward us during and after biologically important activities like eating, drinking and sex.  Drugs of addiction flood the brain with dopamine in initial doses. The brain responds by reducing production, and then reducing the number of receptors for it in our reward circuits. The addict is then less able to enjoy that which previously brought pleasure, and drug consumption goes up as they try at first to recreate earlier experiences of pleasure. Eventually, they are flat out trying to restore dopamine production to a level where they are able simply to feel normal.

This is called “tolerance”, though a better word is slavery – long-term brain changes leave the established smoker lighting up durries in order to feel the way non-smokers do ordinarily, and without their drug they are desolate. If they stop smoking, all hell breaks loose. Everything from restlessness and irritability right up to bad dreams, tears and a full-blown experience of bereavement can afflict smokers whose brains are simply no longer producing or receiving the stuff needed in order to enjoy anything.

In all of this, the rational decision-maker of Enlightenment supersitition is nowhere to be seen. This guy was mostly only a post-hoc creation of a philosophy dreamed up to endorse early capitalism, but the neurobiology of addiction reveals him as a painted idol. To put it simply, for the addict, the choice to give up is so much more difficult than the choice to keep going as to be of an entirely different order. That’s not because of moral weakness, but because their free will is seriously constrained by their brain chemistry. To keep smoking is to live in a way that is doable; to stop suddenly is to disrupt your life, and the lives of those around you, at a fundamental level.  Giving up is of course possible – thousands of people do it every day. But using your brain to overcome it’s own mechanisms of pleasure and reward is a piece of bootstrapping that only one in ten of those quitting smoking manage to sustain on any given attempt. This is why there is a huge, diverse industry that exists to help people kick their nicotine addiction.

Clearly, if you keep smoking it’s not because you’ve calmly weighed up the alternatives and the opportunity costs and decided to press on with an enjoyable pastime. It’s because your brain has been rewired so that your addiction is the overwhelming influence on your choices. (If you doubt that, ask yourself how many smokers you know of who want and encourage their own children to take up the habit, and how many vociferously discourage them.) Views of freedom which consider limiting our opportunities to take up smoking as a threat arise from philosophical perspectives which simply aren’t adequate to a twenty-first century understanding of the human organism. Given that 17% of the adult population of Australia are making decisions on this basis about a large chunk of their disposable income, it raises doubts about the basis on which resources are being allocated, and opportunities being foregone in the economy as well.

Some have made a freedom of speech argument on behalf of the tobacco companies, which simply underlines the ongoing problem of values that certain stripes of liberalism have not solved. Prominent internal critics of liberalism – like John Gray – point out that Liberalism gives us no persuasive reason to prefer the liberties it prioritises over other human goods – say, justice. This situation simply serves to illustrate that problem. The position that the freedom of speech of tobacco companies should be preserved even at the expense of children who may as a result acquire a lethal addiction (and that would be the position of some when pressed) is so perverse that it will likely just serve as a living demonstration to most of us that some strains of liberalism are an unreliable and deeply fallible guide to the good.

If I beat the odds this time, I will probably comprise part of the statistical evidence adduced for the success of the move to plain packaging, which I am comfortable with. If I don’t, I’ll be a little closer every day to an early death, courtesy of a poor decision by a teenager who I barely remember. But either way, smoking is just one of the issues where we can see that those who speak on behalf of freedom are actually seeking to preserve a situation where the most vulnerable party has no freedom at all.


Image by meddygarnet via Creative Commons Licence

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