Tobacco, Patriarchy and Totalitarianism; Inseparable Friends

Erasmo Calzadilla

In 2012, BRASCUBA managed to produce and sell 227 million cigarettes.”The most interesting thing about these figures is that they come from the national market, which has a positive impact on the country’s economy.”  -Jorge Abraham Maluff, Cuban Co-President at BRASCUBA

Advertising for the “Popular” brand, designed to attract young people.

 

HAVANA TIMES — People who haven’t experienced “socialism” firsthand may imagine it’s a system where collective well-being takes priority over individual rights. According to this line of thought, chronic problems in these kinds of societies – such as a lack in personal freedoms – stem from excess. If we approach this from another angle, contrary to the aforementioned, left-wing totalitarianism sways quickly toward becoming an abitrary “Big Brother” power, which is enforced by its many repressive practices.

Something like this takes places here in Cuba but is a lingering trend. “Socialism” in Cuba works differently. The tobacco dilemma we face here will help us understand how exactly.

The evolution of lung, bronchial and esophageal cancer in Cuba.

Cuba is currently experiencing a lung cancer epidemic. Every year, more and more people, especially more young people, are dying because their respiratory tracts have been eaten away by smoking. Our Big Brother State is developing biotechnological advances to produce vaccines and has spent millions of dollars buying state of the art technology in order to fight this disease which seems unstoppable.

But, how crazy is that? This same Big Brother (using this term I summarize the System, the Machine, the Regime and the Party-State-government) actively participates in encouraging smoking, which is closely linked to cancer and other deadly diseases. The World Heath Organization claims that this dangerous habit is the number 1 cause for preventable diseases and premature death. In our country, the bad habit of smoking tobacco is deadlier than accidents, diabetes, flu and all the illegal drugs put together, to give you only a few examples.

Comparing the number of deaths as a result of smoking and accidents in Cuba.  Smoking, flu and pneumonia, accidents, diabetes.

If totalitarianism was really the collective’s disproportionate power over the individual, the System would have unleashed a campaign against smoking a long time ago, as its a bad habit practiced by the minority which harms the majority. But no, Big Brother has revealed itself as being excessively lenient in this respect: slow and reluctant to implement and enforce regulatory laws, tolerant of businesses that, in their own self-interest, encourage the consumption of this harmful drug. Why?

Such an attitude tips the scale towards my second hypothesis: The System is driven by the need and ambition to have a constant cash flow. But, then why do they encourage the tobacco industry to get the money that they then need to spend on treating those who get sick because of smoking?

No, neither of these makes sense; it’s time to substitute them for some more sophisticated hypotheses. For example, let’s contemplate this one for a moment: The smoking dilemma we have here in Cuba is the same as that in any other part of the world. There are some companies who only maximize their profits without caring about the social cost they imply, and then there’s a State who, in some way, represents the people and looks out for their best interests.

This seems to make more sense, but let’s go into some details to see where the devil really lies.

In some countries, where civil society is able to mobilize itself, they are able to keep the pro-tobacco lobby in check and even push them back, but civil society… this exotic concept, hasn’t flourished here. When Big Brother was still in its early stages, it turned what could have been civil society into the masses and then engulfed it, to protect it they said.

Smoking and gender

Smoking and gender.  Worldwide – Cuba.  Men and women.

We’ve come a little bit closer to the real reason, having shifted from idealistic and exaggerated hypotheses to more realistic and grounded ones. However, none of the ideas we’ve discussed so far really hit the nail on the head and won’t do unless we explore the issue of gender. Tobacco isn’t only a relaxing drug, it also acts (especially within our society) as a phallic symbol, a sign of macho power.

Ties and mutual legitimization between the Revolution, masculinity and tobacco have left a strong impression on the Cuban mindset. Another one has gradually been adding itself to this threesome, which up until now has only been villified: Capital. With these powerful horsemen at the reins of our country, it’s not surprising that Tabacuba and Brascuba push forward with the ease of the man in the house walking about in his boxers in his living room.

Front page of the Tabacuba website.

Today, many countries are beginning to fight for neutral packaging (which neither stands out nor attracts people to smoke), to get rid of menthol filters and to stop selling cigarettes alongside other retail products as well as for explicit health warning messages on packaging. Cuban tobacco companies, however, are going full steam ahead in the opposite direction: cigarette packets are becoming more and more attractive, menthol filters are being introduced, cigarettes are being sold in retail establishments, putting unclear health warnings on packaging and promoting tobacco as being “Cuban”, popular, young and happy. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that we are one of the most affected countries by America’s deadliest habit on the continent: standing in fifth place.

It’s very difficult to find up-to-date information about smoking in Cuba. After losing a few hours searching the web, I found statistics for the number of cigarettes sold until 2013 (figures which tobacco companies don’t publish on their own websites, of course). According to this article, sales went up slightly during that year. The report didn’t mention the huge amount of cigarettes sold on the black market, which is tolerated by our political and anti-crime vigilence bodies.

The last official reports about smoking – published on the internet- last took place in 2001 (nationally) and in 2007 (municipally). That is to say, the number one cause for premature death isn’t followed by a vigilence system which collects up-to-date information. It’s scary to confirm just how far Big Brother’s indifference has gone.

The State itself has created several institutions with the supposed aim to tackle this habit but, out of their depth, they’re unable to face the conspiring forces that back tobacco consumption.

In summary, dear readers, totalitarianism doesn’t imply absolute control of the collective over the individual; nor is it connected as much as you might think with repression and discipline. It’s possible that Cuban society may be one of the most anarchist in the world but, paradoxically, in the worst sense of the word “anarchy”.

In our particular case, socialist totalitarianism is the casual and undisciplined way a predominant group forces itself upon, infiltrates and sneaks its way into the heads of everyone in society, getting into people’s imaginations even. This group of businessmen-officials-macho-game players, who have been climbing to the top of the social ladder, have replaced the innocent and cynical Communists of yesterday, whilst maintaining and taking advantage of their “best” legacy: the stupefied masses who are incapable of organizing themselves to fight for their rights.

Every time you get onto a bus and see the driver with a cigarette stub in his mouth, blowing smoke at his passengers, remember that this heartless employee is the last piece of a powerful machine that relies mainly on our common sense. And we, the majority, are the ones at harm. What can we do to avoid breathing in other people’s smoke? To stop being humiliated at every turn?
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Notes:

  1. Statistics taken from Annual Health Report.
  2. The mortality rate for smoking in Cuba was taken from the summary made by the Round Table dedicated to this subject.
Illustration by Carlos.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Erasmo Calzadilla

Erasmo Calzadilla: I find it difficult to introduce myself in public. I've tried many times but it doesn’t flow. I’m more less how I appear in my posts, add some unpresentable qualities and stir; that should do for a first approach. If you want to dig a little deeper, ask me for an appointment and wait for a reply.


7 thoughts on “Tobacco, Patriarchy and Totalitarianism; Inseparable Friends

  • June 21, 2016 at 9:37 am
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    I think that my. additional post with links was either lost in cyberspace or is still awaiting approval. I’ll wait until I can get to a PC to type out the links if they don’t appear, as this is a way to resist atomisation of those unhappy about the tobacco problem and the lack of progress, to which Erasmo has consistently drawn attention

  • June 20, 2016 at 11:32 am
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    I promised some links. As this comments section is for English speaking readers as well as those who read Spanish too. I’ll just note today that MEDICC Review actually has or at least had good articles which can’t be dismissed as propaganda. I recommend vol 15 no 4 Tobacco and Alcohol Consumption among Health Students in Cuba and Mexico” and everything written by Dr/Prof Patricia Varona Perez which is also in Revista Cubana de Salud Publica. for example vol 35 no 2

    if Erasmo or anyone else finds this difficult or expensive to download please let me know so I can help

    I’m not suggesting the right amount of attention is paid to this: given the status of “health superpower” the WHO and PAHO reports on Cuban action are indeed poor. I’m am simply noting thst it’s possible to locate allies. If the resistance to doing something is strong because Cuba has it’s own tobacco lobby that’s an opening after all.

    Finally on cancer and ageing: yes the rate of growth of deaths from cancer is greater than the rate of growth of population ageing, but nowhere near the dramatic mortality rate soaring into the clouds as you drew it. it’s a question of style I guess. I’m a careful academic I admit

  • June 17, 2016 at 7:00 pm
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    I’m sorry I only saw this response tonight Erasmo. I am exactly sure why you found my note tdisrespectful but it was meant to be the opposite. I did disagree with you and find I still do on most points. However, taking. the trouble to disagree is the opposite of disrespect . I wish you could see it that way

    I will post last some interesting links for you that I found on Monday

    . it is absolutely true that i did not think of the far, far greater difficulty and cost for you of surfing the internet. Stupid of me., yes. The articles include a comparative study of smoking amongst Cuban and Mexican medical students.

    I’ll add some more then,

  • June 13, 2016 at 3:57 pm
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    “…why not do enough research to find the Cuban medical researchers, and even regime sympathetic foreign ones, who agree with you Erasmo? I found them and can post links.”

    In Cuba Internet access is very difficult. Nevertheless, I spent a lot of time looking for information about smoking habits here. I don’t think there is any recent study about that, but if you find one, I will be grateful to see it.

    “Then you have evidently got access to the same mortality tables I do. It’s not the young people dying of lung cancer. It takes serious time for the effects to cause deaths. Do you want me to cite the figures?”

    What are you asking me, specifically?

    “I think your graphic also fails to give the age-adjusted rates.”

    I used basic rates, and it is enough and better for understanding what I am trying to say in this post. Basic rates are not affected by the population aging.

    “Cubans are dying more from cancer in large measure because the nation is aging. Yes the rates should be declining in a better world, but why exaggerate?”

    The population aging is not enough to explain the increase of cancer in Cuba. I had exposed it thoroughly in my last articles, please read them.

    “You are also aware, Erasmo, that smoking kills through other causes of death.”

    I never said cancer is the only lethal sickness linked to the smoking habit. I use the lung cancer chart because this sickness has a direct relation with the habit. And government reports show that most of the lung cancer incidence is the consequence of smoking.

    “What are Cuban children taught? The excellent formal education Moses cites can be used for teaching how we found that smoking kills.”

    Some studies show that more than 1/3 of Cuban teachers smoke.

    “They make your prose look like deliberate hyperventilation”, “I know it’s much more enjoyable to post a few nifty eye -catching charts but here is a serious issue worth more than that.”, “Therefore you have a responsibility to discuss and debate in the most rational and informative way, and avoid cheap shots.”

    I find your response quite disrespectful.

    “By the way, is that poster still in use and if so where?”

    I took the photo around a month ago.

    “To draw in and comment on others who see contradictions but don’t share all your views.”

    Thanks but, it is my problem.

  • June 9, 2016 at 6:58 am
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    Thanks very much for calling attention to this vital wuestion again Erasmo.
    However, for some reason it hasn’t grabbed the English language commentators here
    I offer some suggestions on a way forward perhaps -to see if there is a respond

    There is a much better and l discussion on this article on the HT Spanish pages. I will take the time to summarise it and post it if there is reader interest here.

    On the substance here, I have to note that in my viee the main important points are buried because of exaggeration, with which I was disappointed

    I am not suggesting this is exaggeration. on the level of smoking in Cuba and the absence of coordinated vigour in combatting it — though why not do enough research to find the Cuban medical researchers, and even regime sympathetic foreign ones, who agree with you Erasmo.? I found them and can post links

    Then you have evidently got access to the same mortality tables I do. It’s not the young people dying of lung cancer. It takes serious time for the effects to cause deaths. Do you want me to cite the figures? They make your prose look like deliberate hyperventilation. Does that help anyvcause?

    I think your graphic also fails to give the age-adjusted rates. These are available. Cubans are dying more from cancer in large measure because the nation is aging. Yes the rates should be declining in a better world, but why exaggerate? Civil society needs the highest standards of debate

    You are also aware, Erasmo, that smoking kills through other causes of death — I only see that in your replies over on the Spanish side.

    Scare tactics have not worked that well to fight smoking, especially amongst youth. Price rises are better in fact. I even remember the popularity of a death’s head in Australia I am not lauding the advertising, but noting the complexity of the problem

    Serious intelligent education should begin in school I think — without enough good evidence either.! It helps convince adults to give up smoking too, when children nag ‘please daddy I do t want you to die’. I have seen this start to work in Russia.

    What are Cuban children taught? The excellent formal education Moses cites can be used for teaching how we found that smoking kills. Before that, Erasmo, US ads eve. used doctor figures to promote brands. Stanford has a site with large collections of these old ads

    The big problem is that the pleasure of tobacco hits early and the deaths decades later. Just stopping advertising works in only a limited way. therefore.

    I know it’s much more enjoyable to post a few nifty eye -catching charts but here is a serious issue worth more than that.

    By the way, is that poster still in use and if so where? Information on new menthol brands and such would also be valuable.

    It is absolutely true that a medical superpower can be embarrassed by the situation, but that’s exactly the reason to do more than write with outrage. You have found a sore point which is really important The question is how to use it best: to blow off steam or to see what can be done.

    People like you are the kernel of the civil society that will come. Therefore you have a responsibility to discuss and debate in the most rational and informative way, and avoid cheap shots. To draw in and comment on others who see contradictions but don’t share all your views.

    It’s easy for me to lecture on this outside Cuba, so I also apologise in advance

  • June 8, 2016 at 7:41 am
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    Advertisements of this sort, long since banned in the US are common throughout the Third World. I am always amazed how Cubans, despite their high degree of formal education, continue to betray so many Third World ignorances.

  • June 7, 2016 at 7:28 am
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    Has anyone ever seen a promotional poster for cigarettes as terrible as what appears in the photo above? Terrible in the sense of associating smoking with the opposite of what it causes, associating it with, human company, parties, fun, and with youth, health and beauty. If possible include a link to a photo, it would be ideal.

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