Amerik: Thank you for smoking

Alfred W. McCoy’s seminal work The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia says that “sanctimonious empire builders subjected millions of natives to the curse of opium addiction, generating enormous revenues for colonial development, and providing profit  for European stockholders (58).”

So the recent WTO ruling may belong to the old story of business and government working together to market drugs. The WTO ruled — in essence — that since menthol in the USA is — by definition — “cool,” the U.S. can’t ban other ciggy flavors, like cloves. This came very much as a surprise to lawmakers of every stripe. Even Phillip Morris (which is heavily invested in Indonesia, via its Sampoerna brand) had worked out a way to get behind the failed no-flavored-cigarettes (except menthol) campaign.

So what we’ve got is Indonesia selling cherry-flavored to American youngsters (who might not be into ol’ Joe Camel) and the U.S. — totally steamed — desperately searches for the trade loophole and discovers that the tobacco trade — and all the-double think that’s kept it smoldering so chilly all this time  — isn’t a loophole. It’s more like the way countries (and major guerrilla movements) have always done business. It’s how they finance the military, build hospitals, etc.

As McCoy tells it:

“[I]n the 1500s European merchants introduced opium smoking; in the 1700s the British East India Company became Asia’s first large-scale opium smuggler, forcibly supplying an unwilling China; and in the 1800s every European colony [including Batavia] had its official opium dens (59).

This is a victory for the Indonesia-based manufacturers of  cloves cigarettes (we call them kretek), including Phillip Morris and the powerful tobacco families.  But it’s hardly a victory for Indonesia.  Indonesia — like the U.S. — simply has nothing to celebrate as regards its drug policy, particularly with regard to tobacco. Here in Jakarta, even if three doctors have said they think you have oral cancer, they’ll easily keep you waiting a couple months to get a biopsy within the state medical system. Meanwhile, zero attempt is made to keep kids from buying cigarettes (quite the opposite).

At the same time, selling drugs is easier said than done, and eventually accomplished through a ruthless amalgam of domestic politics, trade diplomacy, and either military or mafia force. So maybe it’s good this is a court decision rather than a military coup or a purchase order for helicopters.

But the take-home for Unc. Sam is that, if you can’t even prevent ruthless foreign profiteers from legally  selling candy ciggies to your kids, then just imagine — ’cause most of the time they’re not even going to bother to sue.

Most favored flavor status for menthol?   I guess the WTO agreed with the kretek makers — it just sounds ridiculous. Like calling the other guy’s fag a dirty weed without hurting the fresh, flavorful image  of your own menthol-mix marvel.  But for backers of commodities like cocaine and cannabis,  even a drug war or two may go down as the normal costs of doing business.

If I’m not mistaken, both cloves and menthol leverage eugenol as the key happy ingredient. Who cares, however, because the point is that kids are always going to hit exotic new substances, whatever they may be. If the local stash in Cincy runs low, they’ll order more from Indonesia.  So the focus on tobacco, which tons of smokers admit has a miserable cost/benefit ratio,  is unjustified.  Alcohol ( about as anti-social a drug as you can find) may also get much more attention that it deserves.

Kids (and adults) aren’t really as stupid as people think. The problem is they tend to be misled by the semi-well-intentioned regulation efforts of government/business. If you chose your drugs based on U.S. law, then you’d be smoking and drinking — both extremely legal  in the U.S. –and you’d be 15 times more likely to get oral cancer (a new risk factor we just learned about and you should quit at least one, today).

Meanwhile, having gotten into the business of helping market cigarettes, the the U.S. government ought to be wondering, just about now, what the hell it’s doing. Cigarettes sell fine, no need to mess with the flavors.  And it’s too complicated — work for chemists, not politicians.

It just seems that nothing’s working and a new paradigm is needed. Both alcohol and tobacco should be forced to compete on a fair playing field with other roots, bark, berries, brews and every other type of thing that people drink, snort, chew or otherwise ingest. Because honestly, who would smoke a bunch of unknown stuff rolled up in a paper tube with a silly flavor? Why?

Would alcohol and tobacco really be able to compete for people’s recreational drug dollar it it weren’t for the legal cachet? Pride in the quality of one’s national tobacco seems to me so old school. There are a lot of safer drugs.

What happened to e-ciggy? I think you’ll find it’s safe enough. Problem is, it doesn’t help move all this tobacco that’s piling up in the warehouses of Java.