IN the 1972 Christmas edition of the BBC comedy Till Death Do Us Part, Alf Garnett’s wife Else muses on the real cause of morbidity. Having squeezed an unfeasibly large Norfolk turkey into the oven of their East End home, Else (played by Dandy Nichols) tells daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) of the cynical insights of her Uncle Wilf. In the past, Wilf observed, people died of tuberculosis, but once a cure was found for that disease, cancer appeared in its place.
Wilf suspected malevolence, as Else recalls: ‘He used to say that they only need so many of us to do the things they need doing; the rest they’d rather do without. So they sprayed the food and put things in the water to keep us down.’
The sketch ends with Else asking: ‘Why do they put cancer in the cigarettes now – they never used to?’ Humour aside, this is an interesting point. Else was hinting that the established link between smoking and cancer (as concluded by Austin Bradford in the 1950s) was a relatively recent phenomenon – and she was partly right. Newer evidence indicates that smoking was actually made more dangerous by a supposedly protective intervention – the filter tip.
In the past, doctors would sometimes recommend smoking to a patient suffering from stress or anxiety. For most of the twentieth century, the vast majority of the adult populace smoked. It became a social obligation. Pubs, works canteens and train carriages were a fog of cigarette smoke. Patients were allowed to smoke in hospital beds, while most doctors and nurses got through their shift with fag breaks.
Tobacco is a natural product, but that doesn’t make it safe. It is inherently harmful to inhale smoke persistently, just as it is to ingest burnt food. As the risks became clear, by the 1960s the government began to increase taxes on smoking, and the tobacco industry responded to the cancer scare by introducing lower-tar cigarettes and filter tips.
Filters were promoted as a clean, modern refinement, showing that the tobacco industry was doing something to mitigate the risk of chronic and terminal disease. This development also boosted profits by reducing the amount of tobacco in each cigarette. The environmental cost was huge: cigarette butts were strewn everywhere, and the cellulose acetate is not readily biodegradable. Plastic pollution, however, was not the only concern.
Belatedly, some scientists believe that filtering was a deadly fraud. Manufacturers must have known that there was no health benefit for customers. A New York Times article (November 5 1997) said filters worsened smoking hazards because more vigorous inhalation was necessary to get the nicotine ‘hit’, forcing smoke deeper into lung tissue. But it gets worse.
‘Cigarette filters could increase the risk of lung cancer, scientists warn’ was the title of a New York Post report on October 24, 2019. The article referred to research by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and San Diego State University, which showed the carcinogenic impact of filters. The authors called for the EU to ban filter tips and the US Surgeon General issued official guidance against them.
Smokers are consuming not just the tobacco but noxious chemicals through the tip of the lit cigarette. Over the decades governments increasingly discouraged smoking, but stopped well short of banning the practice. And they did nothing to challenge the industry on its filter tips, which endanger smokers. After the testing, masking and injecting regime in Covid-19, we should not be surprised that filter tips ‘for your safety’ was a lie, maintaining tax revenue for the state and a healthy balance sheet for the corporations.
If you still smoke cigarettes, you’d be better rolling your own.