Topic: Science & Technology

An Ethical Cigarette?
(12/7/2005)

British American Tobacco (BAT) claims that it has developed a "safer cigarette" that will cut the risk of smoking-related diseases such as cancer and heart failure by up to 90%. The new cigarettes purportedly use tobacco treated to produce lower levels of cancer-causing chemicals, and employ a revolutionary type of filter that will remove more of the remaining toxins.

A welcome technological advance that will save the lives of thousands? Or a cynical ploy designed to keep smokers chained to their deadly habit? Anti-smoking forces in America and Britain have pre-condemned the new product before it has even seen the light of day (its market debut is scheduled for early next year). Typical is the reaction of Professor John Britton, a British epidemiologist, who sneered: "Anything involving inhaling smoke is unsafe. These new cigarettes could be more like jumping from the 15th floor instead of the 20th: theoretically the risk is less but you still die."

Isn't this a classic example of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good? Smoking, though it seems to be losing the culture wars in the U.S., is still a social addiction that affects millions worldwide, killing an unacceptable percentage of them. If a significantly safer cigarette has been developed that is, as BAT claims, truly 90% less dangerous, it warrants applause, not condemnation. The Scoreboard understands that the most militant anti-smoking forces would like to wipe all traces of smoking from the face of the earth (and all tobacco executives as well), but that just is not going to happen any time soon, if ever. We do not hear nutritional experts condemning leaner beef or French Fries fried in healthier oils; fitness experts do not attack the use of home exercise equipment because it keeps people from going to gyms; conservationists don't object to hybrid cars because they aren't horses. If, and based on the tobacco industry's track record, it is a colossal "if," the BAT cigarette is really significantly safer without being so unsatisfactory that smokers puff three or five or ten for every normal cigarette; if the new product provides desperate smokers with a pleasurable and effective substitute from the hard stuff; if, in short, the BAT cigarette prevents disease and saves lives, then it is a good thing, and British American Tobacco not only deserves praise for developing it, but also deserves to make money marketing it.

A world with safer cigarettes is healthier, safer and better than the present world, which is without them. That is the proper ethics standard, not comparison with a utopian smokeless world that may never exist. If the perfect (or even the near perfect) is forseeably attainable, then accepting something less can be a mistake when the lesser achievement impedes, delays or prevents the perfect from coming to pass. But in real life, the perfect is almost always an unreachable ideal, worthy of striving for, but ultimately a dream. It is wrong to allow reverence for such dreams to paralyze progress, and to condemn a significant improvement as unacceptable because it falls short of the ideal. It is especially wrong when embracing a less-than-perfect solution might save lives.

The safer cigarette may yet prove to be as much of a fantasy as the extinct cigarette. But if it exists, it will be an ethical cigarette, because it will be more ethical than the present alternative.

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