Smoking and the smoking gun…

Here’s another intriguing article from the New York Times: Ah, Those Principled Europeans. Here’s a stripped-down outline of the article in question:

  • Europeans, GMOs and Smoking:
    • Europeans have to make clear when they’re selling food that contains genetically modified organisms.
    • This is a rebellion against America and high-technology.
    • This can be demonstrated still more clearly because Europeans smoke like chimneys.
    • Smoking is much more dangerous than eating genetically modified organisms, therefore they must just be doing it to spite the Americans.
  • Europeans, America and Iraq:
    • Europeans are not defying the US for any of the good reasons that do exist (these reasons are not mentioned or explored).
    • Europeans are ignoring the fact that young Iraqi people want democracy and wish to escape from the rule of their dictatorial leader.
    • In fact, just like with GMOs and smoking, Europeans are just against the war because they are simply against whatever the US wants to do.
    • Because Europe wants to constrain the power of the United States they end up inevitably on the morally questionable side of Iraq.
    • This is weakness masquerading as moral superiority.

Point-by-point, then. European governments are not the people who put the issue of GM food on the international agenda. In fact many European governments – including the British government – have been traditionally in favour of genetically-modified products. It has been (in order) green activists, some parts of the media and finally the general population that brought this issue to the forefront of politics. They are the ones that campaigned the display of this kind of information. Government had very little to nothing to do with it. Anti-American sentiment has absolutely nothing to do with it.

I’ve dug around a bit and it does seem to be the case that there is more smoking in Europe than in America. But this difference doesn’t seem to be as extreme as the New York Times article suggests. The best place I found for comparative statistics (that also illustrate differences between the member states of the EU) was The World Health Organisations Tobacco Atlas from 2002. While the number of male and female smokers in Europe were generally higher than in the United States, this wasn’t uniformly the case and several key European countries had fewer smokers than the US. Particularly interesting were the maps of comparative cigarette consumption [PDF of World-wide Cigarette Consumption]. According to this measure, most European countries are in exactly the same band of smoking intensity as the US and Canada. A few are heavier smokers. A few smoke less. These hardly seem to be figures that one could use to support a systematic theory of European hypocrisy.


So i) the labelling of GMO wasn’t done because of America-bashing, but because of green activists and ii) the differences in smoking habits between the EU and the US aren’t that dramatic. What we might then go on to point out is that labelling something as a GM crop – although it might conceivably add to the cost of producing foodstuffs – is not necessarily designed to stop people buying it, just to allow consumers to make that choice for themselves. There’s an awful lot of stuff that you are required to put on food labels in the EU [EU Food Laws] – from whether a product contains nuts, through to lists of ingredients, through to basic nutritional information. It doesn’t necessarily follow that making sure products are labelled with pertinent information makes them sell any less well. Otherwise none of us would buy cheap, high-calorie foodstuffs.

The second half of the article – where the analogy is drawn between European smoking habits and their refusal to give total assent to a war with Iraq – contains some interesting statements, many of which may contain some elements of truth. Clearly – as the article states – there are good reasons for not going to war. There are always good reasons for not going to war – the most significant of which is that people have a tendency to get killed. Secondly it seems entirely likely that there are people in Iraq who wish to depose Saddam Hussein. There were lots of people who wanted to depose him during the last Gulf War, and who in fact rose up against him. And yes – it seems likely that many European countries are uncomfortable with the idea of any country acting unilaterally against another without the assent of the international community. These things are almost certainly true.

But just like with the perceived motivations for European decisions on GMOs and smoking – there are some tenuous logical bridges being built. Firstly a disagreement with unilateral action is not anti-American – it is simply that America is the one contemplating unilateral action – just as it happens to be America that supplies a good proportion of the world’s GM food and technology. Secondly, the existence of dissident groups within a country is not necessarily enough reason to suggest deposing its leader, nor is it a guarantee of support should one invade. George Bush Senior tried to persuade the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. He succeeded, they did. And they were left exposed when the west withdrew from the region subsequently. Whether they’d be as comfortable to rise up again isn’t entirely clear…

Finally, the logical problem comes down the statement that the Europeans are being forced into morally bankrupt pro-Iraqi positions by their selfish resistance to the American (and British) position. But in fact there are no European leaders who would stand up and defend Saddam Hussein. None. But nor are there many convinced that the proposed invasions would radically improve the situation of people across the world or the lot of the Iraqi people – who (we are reminded) are also victims in this situation. In fact it’s the polarising of the debate into “You’re either with us or against us” rhetoric from the States and from American media that is pushing Europe more steadily and defiantly in opposition. The sensation that they are being pressured to attack rather than persuaded to attack is – and should be – profoundly discomforting. For if all positions other than the one advocated by the United States come to be perceived as by dint of their opposition intrinsically immoral, then the whole world’s in a pretty bloody dangerous space…

Addendum: This article has been discussed by a wide variety of different sites from all sides of the political spectrum. I want to openly deny at this stage an allegiance with either the pro or anti-war lobbies. I have yet to fully make up my mind about the need, the expediency, the pragamatics or the morality of a potential conflict. What I have made up my mind about is that it’s too bloody serious an issue to let people sloganeer, to have individuals try and shut down necessary debate or to dismiss opposing viewpoints as the products of selfish, diseased or un-Christian degenerates. Thousands of people are likely to be killed as a result of this action – it’s immoral not to agonise over whether it’s the right decision or not.