The government turning the screws on the cigarette companies with increased taxes and plain packaging takes me back to the three years in the mid-1990s in which I worked for a cigarette company in Brisbane. I began in early 1994 as a graduate.
Ordinarily, perhaps I may have been reluctant to work for a tobacco company, but Australia was then suffering from the effects of Keating’s recession we had to have, and so I was happy just to find work. And also, I was already a part-time smoker anyway, so I didn’t really have any philosophical objections. At least, I didn’t to begin with.
On day one, walking in to the company’s office/warehouse complex, the first thing I noticed inside was the atmosphere. This was in the days before smoking became banned in the workplace, restaurants, bars and just about every other public place you care to mention. Back then, it was open slather and this cigarette company wasn’t for wasting the opportunity.
On seemingly every flat surface was an ashtray, and above each of these ashtrays was a little hexagonal yellow sign that said: PLEASE FEEL FREE TO SMOKE. The staff seemed to have taken this entreaty to heart, too, because almost all of them had a cigarette in the mouths or smouldering in one of the ashtrays dotted around their workstations. To say that a rank miasma pervaded the place would be an egregious understatement.
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On my first pay day, I was stunned when I was asked what sort of cigarettes I would like. You see, not only did the tobacco company encourage its staff to smoke, but it also gave them an allocation of “free” cigarettes every month to assist them in their corporate duty.
Every month, I would receive 500 cigarettes — increased to 600 when I was promoted to marketing analyst — for my own personal use (about three cartons).
Unfortunately, staff were not allowed to sell these cigarettes and, indeed, anyone caught trying to sell them was liable to be summarily dismissed. You had to either smoke them yourself or give them away. Five hundred cigarettes is a lot to give away. I would find my friends pleading with me not to give them cigarettes as they, like me, were trying to give up. Some of them began calling me the “cancer-man”.
The cigarette company’s generosity didn’t end with its staff. They also had a “gratis” list, or list of people to whom they would merrily deliver free cigarettes each month.
The people on this list comprised the “A” list of Queensland decision makers and influence peddlers, everyone from politicians, mayors, judges, QCs, leading public servants, actors and other significant or influential people across the state.
At the time, as a lowly accounts assistant, I thought the company did this because they were just being nice. Who knows, maybe this is how the recipients of this patronage pass it off? However, now it seems obvious that the goal was, first, to keep these powerful figures hooked on nicotine and, secondly, grateful towards the tobacco industry such that they would consider long and hard before making any decisions that might negatively impact upon these concerns.
It would be interesting to know if the gratis list still exists.
What we do know is that cigarette companies are some of the most significant donors to political parties on the conservative side of politics. This makes Tony Abbott’s decision to support Kevin Rudd’s plain packaging legislation brave and praiseworthy.
Before people leap to the tobacco industry’s defence and complain about the government damaging copyright by enforcing plain packaging restrictions, which have been shown to have an effect, especially on people attempting to quit smoking, they should be aware that cigarette companies are well aware of the addictive and dangerous nature of their products.
More than that, they are quite willing to use whatever means are at their disposal to keep people either addicted to their product or dependent upon their largesse.