Tobacco can never be safe

PUBLISHED : Monday, 16 May, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 May, 1994, 12:00am

MELVYN Bennett in his letter of April 26 asks when the ''spotlight'' may turn from smoking to alcohol in relation to a number of facets of that drug's effects on the human condition compared with the effects of tobacco.

While indeed we need two spotlights, the alcohol industry itself is illuminating its own field, whilst the tobacco industry continually tries to keep us in camera about its drug and its activities to ensure an ever more addicted population, especially in the developing world.

Firstly, deaths from drunken driving are admitted and almost all developed governments (except Hong Kong's) have legislation and controls to bring such matters in check. These measures have been seen to work well in most Western jurisdictions, including Australasia, where drunk-driving deaths have declined significantly over the last decade. Conversely we probably have no precise knowledge and certainly no control over homes ravaged by fire when a careless smoker falls asleep with a lighted cigarette in his hand. There is no effective control measure.

Secondly, as for abortions, how many underweight births and respiratorily impaired children are there because mothers smoke during pregnancy and children grow up in a tobacco-smoke-laden home atmosphere? Thirdly, a person truly drunk is, in fact, sexually compromised, so I suspect the data may not be so condemnatory to the alcohol user and finally the productivity lost to hungover workers is probably comparable to that lost to workers who slink away from smoke-free workplaces, outside for a ''quick puff'' which on average loses seven to 10 minutes each time for up to 10 occasions (conservatively) per working day, whereas hangovers (usually) happen only on Monday mornings in a serious way. I do not seek to condone hangovers, merely to offer parallels.

Recent data for Hong Kong suggests that if the number of alcoholics in a population of alcohol users is 10 to 15 per cent, the number of teenage alcoholics in Hong Kong may be as many as 15,000. This is calculated as 10 per cent of those who admit regular use of alcohol between the ages of 12 and 17 in a secondary school population of 0.5 million. It is a sad reflection on our failure to put in place both effective alcohol and tobacco education for the young, or their parents, who allow them to drink.

However, here is the significant difference between alcohol and tobacco.

Tobacco addicts almost all those who begin to use the drug regularly, alcohol does not. It is well accepted world-wide that only 10 to 15 per cent of those who use alcohol become addicted to it. Since nearly all adult members of any population make use of the drug this figure represents a significant number of alcoholics, in Hong Kong as many as 600,000 may be alcoholics at a conservative estimate.

Thus, as Mr Bennett says the effects on society are significant. However as almost 100 per cent of tobacco users become addicts, and conservatively 30 per cent of Hong Kong men and five per cent of Hong Kong women smoke, 850,000 people will suffer some decreased quality of life from their habit, therefore we can see that the numbers are firmly weighted against tobacco. Since drinkers are often smokers too, (or vice versa), we can guesstimate that the two products compromise about one million of the population! Furthermore the tobacco industry tries to convince us that its product is not addictive, that it is not dangerous and that the industry does not tamper with the drug formulation to keep users hooked, nor does it (it says) try to recruit the young or add to the minority of women who smoke. Nevertheless it clearly does all of these things, afraid as it is, of losing its markets. The tobacco industry is dishonest, the alcohol industry is less so.

It has a voluntary code of advertising which at times steers a little close to encouraging the young; but it has set up, in nearly every major developed country, agencies to promote responsible drinking, to develop sensible drink-workplace education and it admits its product is abusable but can be used safely and enjoyably. Although some say that tobacco is enjoyable, it can never be safe. Eighty per cent of tobacco addicts say they wish to give up - is that a sign of an enjoyable habit? So called binge drinking in children is a concern which sensible policing by parents, clubs and supermarket managers could control. Responsible drinking by adults can even be life enhancing as shown by medical research! I hope the points noted above might convince Mr Bennett that he is on untenable ground and that, although not in general advocates of irresponsibility of any sort, those of us with evidence at our fingertips are convinced that alcohol and its promotion is far preferable to its legal abusable cousin, 60 times more poisonous than heroin, the nicotine containing tobacco.

JEFFREY DAY Lecturer in Curriculum Studies, (Science) The University of Hong Kong