On Cigarettes and Socialism

There may be no ethical consumption under capitalism, but socialists still shouldn't try to rationalize antisocial products and behaviors.

When it comes to tackling the wider issue of the working class’s false sense of personal freedom and individual choice under capitalism, there are tremendous consequences for the socialist movement. For some on the Left, socialism is regarded as a movement that increases opportunities for the working class rather than one that restricts their own personal liberties. In contrast to capitalism, which favors the rich few, socialism favors the collective. But there are a few ways of looking at it. Some freedoms will be restricted under socialism, in truth. For example, the freedom to control the means of production. However, prison abolition, universal healthcare, high-quality public education, the end of wage labor or a guaranteed income, and a centralized economy would all offer up more opportunities for a better life (the degree of centralization or decentralization this controlled economy would have can be left open for now).

I feel that the topic of personal freedom has significant stakes and that we on the Left don’t think about it sufficiently or in a consistent manner.Consider the following tweets from Twitter user @BenDWalsh from June of this year:

The ‘ardently pro-cigarette leftist’ is a great tell of politics for the sake of edginess rather than [a] serious concern for improving the conditions of life. [It] just objectively makes zero sense. A few large, wildly profitable companies sell unregulated poison that kills and maims millions of people, disproportionately harming people of color and the poor. It’s obviously bad… Oh also? Those [multinational] corporations’ new plan to maintain profits is to increase the amount of poisoning and maiming and killing [done] in the global South.

One of the most popular responses came from Ryan Cooper @ryanlcooper, managing editor of The American Prospect, who said, “People gave me shit for *days* when I mentioned I had done some anti-smoking activism in high school.” He agrees with Walsh about the Left’s over-defensiveness toward smoking.

Twitter user The Barb @OrcGirlBoss responded, saying, “the state treating human beings like babies incapable of making decisions about their own happiness and health is not ‘improving the conditions of life’ unless you think every single behavior needs to be legislated and penalized.” “I don’t think anyone is pro-cigarettes, I think people just believe adults should consume whatever they want,” said Twitter user Santiago Mayer @santiagomayer.

When it comes to cigarette smoking, I believe the Left’s over-defensiveness and reduction of the issue to personal choice mirrors the Left’s discussions about animal agriculture. This is a similar industry that promotes cruelty, as well as worker abuse and pollution, but it is dismissed as a matter of personal preference or lifestyle politics, with few on the Left advocating for its eradication.

I hope that one day socialists will be able to discuss the tobacco industry without reducing it to an argument about personal choice. While we debate ethical consumption, these sectors of our economy continue unethical activities behind closed doors. Think about the last time you read news about Tyson Foods, Perdue, or R.J. Reynolds (to name a few). Can’t remember? This is because these issues are not out in the open. Instead, these industries get to hide behind personal choice to deflect criticism of the harm they cause.

Whether or not you partake in or support the individual consumption of meat or tobacco, these industries wield enormous influence and commit significant human rights abuses while being mostly disregarded by those who claim to despise capitalism and big business. These industries are ignored in favor of big oil, Amazon, Silicon Valley, finance, or a nebulous conception of capitalism in general. Popular anti-capitalist issues are discussed only insofar as they’re newsworthy, trending topics, while meat and tobacco go unnoticed. Despite the fact that “big meat” is perhaps the greatest environmental polluter next to oil, and “big tobacco” is the leading cause of preventable death globally.

Contrary to popular belief, smoking or animal and worker abuse in the meat industry are not personal choices for anyone—not even the companies that produce them.

Big tobacco has been able to sell cigarettes for decades while knowing they are lethal by “portraying smoking as a willful, personal decision,” claims Sarah Milov in a New York Times op-ed. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently advised lowering the nicotine content in cigarettes to make them less addictive. A proposal Milov writes provides “an opportunity to test one of the industry’s core propositions.” Smoking is a choice that people make freely and responsibly. However, portraying cigarette smoking as an individual choice just protects the tobacco industry from product liability lawsuits.

But Milov notes that “the tobacco industry has adjusted ammonia levels in cigarettes since the 1960s” to increase nicotine’s addictive effects. A majority of smokers want to quit but can not. One survey of smokers found that a staggering 70% of those polled said they “would prefer not to smoke.” Every year, “more than half of the nation’s 31 million adult smokers” try to quit, but only 7.5% succeed.

Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death worldwide. Second-hand smoking kills over 600,000 people each year and harms 40% of the world’s children. Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia account for one-third of cigarette-related child fatalities. A 2001 New York Times article shows that Philip Morris advertises cigarettes internationally and gives away free samples to minors in Eastern Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Because of cigarette regulations in Europe and the US, tobacco businesses target the global south. The nature of capitalism means that these firms are forced to continually grow and expand into new markets.

There had been a long-term decline in cigarette smoking among adults in the United States until the year 2020, when cigarette sales increased for the first time in more than two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the total adult cigarette smoking rate in the United States fell to a record low of 13.7% in 2018. Public health professor David Hammond claims that the millennial generation is responsible for this surge in smoking.

Further, the impact of the meat industry on workers is especially deleterious. Katie Paige, Kelly Alana, and Renato Flores write for Cosmonaut about the environmental impact of animal agriculture. The meat industry is able to build up factory farms in low-income regions with a large population of non-white workers who are willing to work for lower wages. Even in North Carolina, where pigs outnumber people, industrial farms face scrutiny. In 2019, homeowners won millions by suing pig farms under nuisance laws. Poor environmental regulations allow pig farms to dump manure in “lagoons,” polluting ground and surface water.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), worker injuries in the meat processing business occur “three times more often in meat packing than in other industries.” Meatpacking has long been regarded as “the most hazardous profession in the United States,” with an annual death toll of 540 (one-ninth of all U.S. worker fatalities) and numerous significant injuries recorded over the last century.

From the Human Rights Watch report cited by Paige et al., large producers like Tyson and Perdue have threatened workers with deportation or termination if they organize, and Smithfield has shut down operations when workers have sought to unionize. In 2017, only 2.1% of private agricultural workers were unionized.

I am aware that neither vegetarianism nor the prohibition of smoking can prevent meat producers or the tobacco industry from promoting cigarette addiction in children, causing harm to workers and animals, polluting our environment, or any other ills. As is the very nature of capitalism, large firms will always need to slash costs and adopt destructive practices in order to remain competitive.

Aren’t we as socialists concerned with what’s best for the working class as a whole, and that we reject discourse that emphasizes personal choices and behavior because it distracts from collective, structural issues? Do we, as socialists, not care about what is best for the working class as a whole, and do we not reject discourse that emphasizes personal choices and behavior because it distracts from collective, structural issues? If this is the case, then using the same logic to justify other problematic behaviors is perplexing. In a socialist future, any good government would, could, and should take action against antisocial products and behaviors. This includes not only closing Amazon sweatshops and no longer allowing people to hoard wealth as millionaires or billionaires, but also prohibiting smoking and large-scale meat production.

So the next time someone like Walsh tweets the truth, we shouldn’t reflexively respond with sarcasm and contempt but instead acknowledge that he has a point and that some of our favorite vices are not compatible with the future we want to build. Next time you’re all like “ra ra, I hate capitalism,” hate on cigarettes and eating animals too.