Thursday, April 23, 2009

How tabacco companies can help end the teenage smoking epidemic

I've been long wondering what the social responsibility of tobacco companies should be. On one hand, it is counterproductive to discourage their CSR efforts in areas such as health, education, disaster relief or community development. On the other hand, applauding these efforts in the context of their main product - cigarettes - is, softly speaking, morally inappropriate. So what could tobacco companies do if they genuinely wanted to become socially responsible?

I found an answer to this question in Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point. How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference which I've greatly enjoyed reading. He says we should stop bedeviling tobacco companies and wasting enormous amounts of money on educating teenagers about the harmful effects of smoking. Apparently, we've been doing this for years but the teenage smoking epidemic has only expanded. Instead we should make cigarettes less addictive, or to use Gladwell's terminology, less 'sticky.' He bases his argument on scientific research that suggests that:
...tobacco companies be required to lower the level of nicotine so that even the heaviest smokers - those smoking, say, 30 cigarettes a day - could not get anything more than five milligrams of nicotine within a 24-hour period - adequate to prevent or limit the development of addiction in most young people, while providing enough nicotine for taste and sensory stimulation.
This to me sounds like a great compromise: tobacco companies could continue their business while the product they sell would become less dangerous. "Cigarette smoking would be less like the flu and more like the common cold: easily caught but easily defeated." This is would be an example of a little thing that can bring about big change. Would the regulators and tabacco companies be willing to do this? What do you think?

Photo credit: CC@Valentin.Ottone