Smoking is a form of slavery

9 December 2022

By Judith Mackay, China Daily

Dec 10 is Human Rights Day, which this year marks the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The 1948 Declaration was one of the first major achievements of the newly-formed United Nations. Key elements have since been adopted and incorporated into many other UN treaties and into national constitutions.

It identifies three basic human rights — the right to life, liberty and security of each person. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination. These rights cover political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights. Specific examples include the right to freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the rights to work, to education, to health, and many more. 

Today, poverty continues to be the most serious, invidious and widespread human rights violation. It is remarkable that, according to the World Bank, China has lifted 800 million people out of extreme poverty over the past 40 years, contributing to three-quarters of global reduction in extreme poverty.


Up until very recently, tobacco and human rights were rarely connected. Where they were mentioned together, the connections were generalized, framed around the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Tobacco has rarely been considered in human rights treaty proceedings, by either UN agencies, governments or activists. There has been little scrutiny of a country’s human rights obligations through the prism of tobacco control on health grounds.

This is beginning to change. During the past 20 years, the rhetoric of a human rights-based approach to health issues has been developed. The rationale is based on how smoking negatively impacts the right to life, the right to health, the right to education, children’s rights, women’s rights, and many other rights. 

Action on Smoking and Health, a non-governmental organization in consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ( ECOSOC), has summarized the link between human health rights and tobacco: 

1. Right to life: Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death.

2. Right to health: Tobacco infringes on achieving the “highest attainable standard of health”.

3. Protection of children: Tobacco marketing targets children.

4. Right to education and information: Child labor in tobacco production denies educational opportunities. Money spent on tobacco by poor families cannot be spent on education. Lack of pictorial graphic warning labels is a lack of information and education on the product.

5. Right to a healthy environment: Cigarettes impact the environment through their entire lifecycle, from growing and manufacturing to second-hand smoke and litter.

6. Women’s Rights: Tobacco companies use targeted advertising to persuade more women to smoke, and smoking complicates pregnancy. 

7. Right to healthy work conditions: Smoking at work negatively impacts the health of all staff and patrons. Tobacco farmers often get sick from nicotine poisoning or Green Tobacco Sickness.

8. Right to be free from racial and gender discrimination: Racial minorities, indigenous people and the LGBTQ community have been heavily targeted by tobacco marketing. 

The tobacco industry, by its very existence, is irreconcilable with the human right to health throughout every stage of its product cycle: growing, manufacturing, marketing, product use, and disposal. 

Freedoms and rights of the individual

It is recognized that human rights to liberty and self-determination need to be balanced against harm to others. Even John Stuart Mill, the great Victorian libertarian, said that “No one has the right to harm others”, which would for example apply to smokers harming nonsmokers.

Illustrating the current use of the 75-year-old UDHR document that guides countries around the world, the Court of Appeal in Malaysia recently ruled that smoking in public places is not a fundamental right that should be protected under the Federal Constitution and upheld the Health Ministry’s decision to ban smoking in all eateries.

Tobacco-related illnesses and deaths have wide-ranging adverse socioeconomic consequences for families, employers, communities, healthcare systems and public resources, while second-hand smoke can affect children and non-smokers.  Children should be able to grow up free of commercial inducements to smoke and not risk involuntary exposure to a serious addictive health hazard.  

Smoking cannot be considered in the category of the right to self-determination when it is an addictive process, started in youth, and from which most smokers would prefer to quit. “Smoking is a form of slavery and is completely incompatible with widely recognized human rights,” activists against smoking have said.

Humans accept all sorts of government and societal limitations on our freedoms in the interests of the public good or their own good, such as wearing seat belts, stopping at red lights, driving on the legal side of the road. Few would suggest that dog owners should have the “freedom” to allow their dog to foul public pavements at their will. If a factory was using a cancer-inducing chemical, most people would think it is the responsibility of the government to order the chemical removed or, failing that, to shut down the factory.  It is the duty of governments to protect public health.

Significantly, one of only four exemptions to total freedoms stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is “public health”.  

What can be done

A human rights approach to ending tobacco is unique because it requires governments to protect their citizens by implementing tobacco control laws and strategies to end the tobacco epidemic based on legally-binding human rights norms. 

All countries should fully implement the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which seeks to realize the right to health through national tobacco control policies.

A human rights-based approach to tobacco control provides new approaches for the effort to achieve an endgame to the tobacco epidemic.

The author is a special adviser to the Global Center for Good Governance in Tobacco Control, a senior policy adviser to the World Health Organization, and director of the Asian Consultancy on Tobacco Control.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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