Smoke signals on the road to decriminalisation

13th June 2001

My name is Niall Gormley and I am a survivor of drug abuse. For years I was addicted to a substance which I abused on a daily basis.

On a number of occasions and for one prolonged period I managed to kick the habit but each time returned to my addiction. I finally managed to give up the drug about eight years ago and I have managed to stay clean since.

Hang on a sec.

The drug I am talking about is cigarettes and I didn’t abuse them. I used them exactly as they were designed to be used. I was certainly addicted but the fact remains that I gave them up when I put my mind to it.

No doubt in the years that I did smoke I did myself damage. The question is: should I sue?

The whole question comes to mind after a court in America awarded $3 billion in damages in a single case against the tobacco companies.

Now, it’s ridiculous for people to claim that they didn’t know that tobacco harmed them and for this reason I don’t believe that tobacco companies should be liable for the damage that cigarettes have caused.

But it now emerges that it wasn’t only tobacco that we were smoking. According to ASH, the anti-smoking group, tobacco smoke contains 4,000 chemicals, 60 of which are known to cause cancer.

Peter McDonald, the Irish lawyer working on smoking claims here, says there are 6,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke and that many of the ingredients of cigarettes are unknown (so there’s a couple of thousand chemicals that are in dispute).

The effect of these ingredients, it is claimed, has been to make cigarettes more addictive and to make smoking more attractive. For instance, it is apparently hard to keep natural tobacco lit. So chemicals are added to keep it alight and you can hear them burn with a little sizzle form ordinary cigarettes.

Furthermore, Peter McDonald claims that the tobacco companies will not reveal what the chemicals in tobacco actually are.

I find this absolutely astounding if it is true. In a climate where your Aunty Mary can’t sell her home-made scones because her kitchen isn’t up to health and safety standards, one of the most damaging products on the market can be sold without its ingredients being known.

This can’t be true. Someone tell me it isn’t true.

Because 7,000 people in Ireland die every year from smoking related diseases and hundreds of thousands suffer from some form of smoking related illnesses. That’s 20 people dead today.

I am opposed in principle to the prohibition of drugs. Any drugs – from hash to heroin. But I draw the line at the sale of drugs, the ingredients of which are unknown.

In fact, this is one of the best arguments for the legalisation of drugs. Many of the worst effects of drugs such as heroin comes from the poor quality of the drug on sale. It’s a bit of a blow to learn that legal drugs haven’t been subjected to this rigour.

The one thing that we shouldn’t do is ban tobacco. If the trend set in California continues then the tobacco companies will cease trading and thus a back door ban will be effected.

Our recent experience shows what a disaster that would be. The overpricing of cigarettes is a form of control that we have been using for years. Over the past few years it has led to the enrichment of some of the baddest bastards in this city.

The California case also signals trouble for the decriminalisation policy that has been gaining ground across Europe. This is the policy of legalising the use of drugs but not the trade in drugs. It’s an absurd policy anyway but now it might be a costly one.

What if heroin users start suing governments over their toleration of drugs which have had no quality control applied to them? A couple of $3 billion judgements might get the debate on drug abuse moving.

As well as that…

What about a temporary ban?

AS you might have gathered I’m not a fan of banning things. I feel that a ban is always a shortcut to facing up to human problems. And demonstrably, bans haven’t solved any drug abuse problems in our society.

However, it would be foolish not to acknowledge that availability does play its part in the harm caused by drug abuse.

So how about a temporary, say three month, ban on the sale of cigarettes?

Firstly, as a temporary ban it is not a fundamental denial of the right of people to control their own lives.

Secondly, the short term ban wouldn’t necessarily lead to a major increase in contraband tobacco.

And thirdly, the absence of fags might give the vast majority of smokers who want to give up the opportunity to try it out.

I believe that some 25 per cent of adults smoke. If 20 per cent of them gave up during the ban, wouldn’t it be worth it? It is after all a habit and an interruption to the day to day habits of some people might just be the shake-up some people need.

I know that there would be hoarding, that the black market price would go up and the chronically addicted would suffer. But it’s worth thinking about, surely?