The Federal Government’s recent economic statement (available here) announced an increase in tobacco excise (staged in four rises between December this year and September 2016), which is expected to raise $5.8 billion.

Public health researcher Dr Becky Freeman estimates the price increase should lead to about 210,000 fewer Australian adults and 40,000 fewer teenagers smoking, or that around 2.5 billion fewer cigarettes will be smoked each year.

But the news prompted The Australian’s economics correspondent, Adam Creighton, to write that the measure “is being sold with the same flawed economic and moral arguments that underpinned Nazi Germany’s policies to stamp out smoking”.

Some in the Twittersphere invoked Godwin’s Law, which relates to the inappropriate use of Nazi analogies in articles or speeches, and is sometimes interpreted as holding that whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever debate was in progress.

In the article below, Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University and President of the Australian Council on Smoking and Health, says Creighton’s attempt to smear health campaigners is “grotesque”.

“It is especially offensive to those of us working in this area whose family tree shows all too many from only one generation back whose lives ended in Nazi death camps,” writes Daube. “One of my most precious possessions is a card my grandfather managed to send his family from Dachau concentration camp.”

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How crass can journalism get?

 Mike Daube writes:

Just when you thought you had seen everything from the tobacco cheer squad, their arguments descend yet further into the gutter.

An article by Adam Creighton in The Australian (“Butt out of Individuals’ Choices”, August 2), attacking tobacco tax increases in particular and public health campaigns in general, equates activities aimed at reducing smoking with Hitler, Nazi Germany and fascism.

There are no less than eleven references to Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany, National Socialism, the Reich, and fascism, as well as a quote from Mussolini.

The only other individual quoted is an extremist Canadian economist with a documented history of working with tobacco companies.

Creighton links modern campaigns on tobacco and other issues with Adolf Hitler’s well-recorded aversion to smoking.  From this he concludes that modern campaigns are still running “his campaign” with the same arguments that he used.

There is nothing new in the observation that Hitler disliked smoking – although it is also true, as Robert Proctor notes in his wonderful history of smoking, that the tobacco companies prospered in Nazi Germany, supported the regime, produced brands such as “Brown Cigarettes” to support the Brownshirts, promoted Hitler on cigarette cards and “wrapped themselves in the Nazi flag, accusing their critics of being unpatriotic or worse….”.

While some early scientific research associating smoking with cancer and other diseases was carried out in Nazi Germany, this achieved little against “the brute economic power of the industry” – which indeed pioneered many of the denial and distraction approaches tobacco companies still use today.

The first widely accepted papers unequivocally linking smoking and lung cancer were published in 1950, in the BMJ (British Medical Journal) and JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) by Sir Richard Doll and Sir Austin Bradford-Hill (who both served in the British armed forces), and Evarts Graham and Ernst Wynder – a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.

The subsequent blockbuster reports on the harms of smoking and the need for action came from the British Royal College of Physicians, the US Surgeon General and the World Health Organization – hardly noted as devotees of Nazi Germany and fascism. More than 160 countries have signed up to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control – all, on the basis of Creighton’s warped logic, apparently to be categorised along with the Third Reich.

Creighton’s attempt to smear health campaigners by associating us with Hitler, Nazi Germany and fascism is grotesque. It is especially offensive to those of us working in this area whose family tree shows all too many from only one generation back whose lives ended in Nazi death camps. One of my most precious possessions is a card my grandfather managed to send his family from Dachau concentration camp.

How dare Adam Creighton even think of associating our work with the approaches of that evil regime?

There are other areas where Creighton’s comments run off the rails, from his minimalist acceptance of the harms of smoking to his remarkable claim that taxes on alcohol and cigarettes “typically don’t much alter behaviour” despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

On matters like these, Creighton is of course entitled to comment, even if inaccurately. But he should not besmirch his arguments with inappropriate and offensive comparisons.

The Nazi holocaust caused the deaths of some 6 million Jews in occupied Europe. The tobacco holocaust, whose interests Creighton appears to support, kills some 6 million people around the world each year.

Hitler and the Nazi regime were responsible for murdering millions.  We seek to prevent millions of deaths. There is a difference.

• Mike Daube is Professor of Health Policy at Curtin University and President, Australian Council on Smoking and Health

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Further reading

• Writing at The Conversation, Patrick Stokes, Lecturer in Philosophy at Deakin University, identifies some of the moral and logical flaws in Creighton’s argument.

• Also at The Conversation, the University of Sydney’s Becky Freeman writes that the tobacco tax increase is a “gold star public health policy”.

• Mental health policy analyst John Mendoza writes at his blog that there should be more discussion and awareness of the implications of the price increase for people with mental illness, who “comprise the largest, most vulnerable, and yet understudied group of smokers”.

He says there is no evidence that raising taxes has any impact on smoking rates for people with mental illnesses who smoke. He writes:

“The Centre for Disease Control in the US notes: “that many adults with mental illness who smoke want to quit, can quit, and will benefit from proven stop-smoking treatments. It’s true that some people with mental illness face issues that can make it more challenging to quit, such as low income, stressful living conditions, and lack of access to health insurance and health care. All of these factors make it more challenging to quit.”

Regrettably, neither the National Preventative Health Agency or the NHMRC have this issue identified in tobacco prevention efforts.

If the Rudd Government ear-marked 40% of the new funds raised for mental health promotion, prevention and early intervention programs, (including ensuring that every person with a mental illness has access to quit smoking programs whilst in care) then the raising of taxes is a reasonable strategy.

This would not only have the desired effect on the overall population rates of tobacco consumption but also provide the appropriate support for the most vulnerable group of smokers.

If on the other hand it’s just to plug holes in the overall budget, it does nothing more than marginalise already vulnerable Australians.”

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