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There’s no such thing as ‘commercial freedom of speech’

Abhorrent and disgusting is my immediate reaction to the idea that cigarette manufacturers have the inalienable right to sell us poison and that we have ‘no right’ to prevent them. Inventing the concept of ‘commercial freedom of speech’ makes it more abhorrent again.

“Commercial Free Speech” is it? I think it’s the first time I’ve seen this pernicious crap make it to our shores, being the preserve of the American hard right (which worryingly now seems to include the Supreme Court). In the US it was long ago decided that corporations and other commercial entities are ‘just like people’ and so should have the rights of people. Yes, that is clearly madness, but it’s now the accepted doctrine in the US. And if that’s where you start, the next thing is that selling cigarettes to children is an issue of free speech, an absolute right demanded by the very tenets of liberty and democracy.

This is about the proposal to force cigarettes into plain packaging to make them less attractive and therefore reduce smoking. The cigarette lobby (the Tories and beyond) have two simple arguments against this – it won’t work but it will harm the economy. Yup, you too may have done a double-take on that. If it isn’t going to work, if people aren’t going to buy fewer cigarettes, how is it going to hit the economy? It’s not like fag packets change their design very often so pinning the whole thing on the loss of graphic design jobs has got to be stretching it. And when they turn to the other great lie of the tobacco industry (it’ll just increase smuggling) I really start to lose the thread of even the fantasy. I mean, who is actually going to go out of their way to import smuggled cigarettes so they can get colourful boxes? Avoid duty maybe, but for the boxes? This has landed in a field ten miles south of silly.

The blatancy of the desperate lies being peddled on behalf of the industry is telling. There is only one group of people who can roll out these arguments for whom I have any respect at all and that’s genuine libertarians, not their commercial impostors. There is some honour in the position that people have a right to screw themselves up if they want. Not a lot of honour in my opinion, but it is at least consistent. So legalise heroin, remove the age of consent from sex and alcohol, deregulate all pornography and so on – that is a consistent position. But suggesting that the rights of freedom stop just at the right of Big Tobacco to market its products without interference has no honour.

Then again, nor has big tobacco. The 50 years of evidence that they did everything to cover up the deaths they were causing is well documented, from the initial attempts to burry the science to the documented strategies of allowing illegal smuggling into emerging markets to cause addiction cheaply (at first…) and the intentional marketing to children in the third world for the same reasons are as low as a social institution has sunk in the post-war era. Even Enron wasn’t systematically killing people (or, if we are to follow the justification, enabling and encouraging people to kill themselves).

So much so corporate scumbag. That anyone in this day and age would cross the road to defend big tobacco seems insane. But now we’re getting the ultimate – that it is the inalienable right of tobacco to kill us as it chooses. There is no such thing as ‘commercial free speech’. This is being sneaked into Britain by Tory MP Mark Field. He seems to think there is some moral principle that means corporations have a ‘right’ to do as they please as if they were human. They aren’t. One assumes that Mr Field does not support the right of ‘free speech’ of the many disillusioned Muslim kids who have toyed with extremist websites and who are now in jail as a result.

Am I associating cigarettes with terrorism? Yes I am, in a very simple way. The law is here to protect the population from severe threats to its wellbeing. Cigarettes are infinitely more likely to kill you, your friends and your family than is a bomb. There is no commercial right to do anything, they do it with the permission of the laws of the land and the laws of the land are here to protect us from killers.

I haven’t got time to check if Mark Field has pockets full of tobacco industry money, but if he is doing this for nothing then he is both morally bankrupt and an idiot. An idiot because no-one defends tobacco without tobacco money in their pockets. My contempt is high on this one – I despise acts of intentional harm, I despise moral justifications for them and I despise above all that these acts are carried out for massive profit. Having to listen to makey-upy new rights of ‘commercial freedom of speech’ is just too much despising for a Saturday lunchtime.

Robin McAlpine