How tobacco killed everyone I loved most and what I intend to do about it

Big tobacco killed my family. It's time to expose the industries learning from their playbook as they kill the planet.

Brendan Montague
1 March 2017
Ken Montague.jpeg

By Dinendra Haria LONDON, UK - DECEMBER 12, 2015 Campaigner Ken Montague (1946-2016) speaks at the Campaign Against Climate Change "Red Line" protest against inadequate climate change deal from COP21 Paris talks.

Death. I want to begin by telling you about my father’s recent death. This is the first of 24 monthly articles for openDemocracy spanning two years, examining the role of corporations and government in environmental policy and regulation. It will end with the word ‘life’.

My father was born in Stepney in 1946 amid dire poverty among the post war ruins of the East of London. This was two years after the Bretton Woods Conference and, of course, about nine months after the end of the Second World War.

As part of the Bretton Woods agreement, tobacco companies in the United States shipped tonnes of unfiltered cigarettes to Britain, professor Robert Proctor explains in his definitive Golden Holocaust: Origins of the Cigarette Catastrophe and the Case for Abolition.

This was presented at the time as an act of generosity and comradeship towards an ally. In fact, the tobacco growers in the US had saturated the market for this slightly pleasurable, highly addictive and deadly product.

Uncle Roger told me that his parents, like many others, were handed packets of cigarettes for free as they entered the air-raid shelters during and after the Blitz. People suffering extreme trauma seized upon any means of regulating their anxiety, any small pleasure in a sea of pain.

Ken, my father, was a born romantic and lived part of his life in a literary dream. He began smoking around about the age of seven by burning leaves in a long pipe while walking along the riverbank with his brother, pretending to be Huckleberry Finn.

This would have been in about 1953. During this very year the chief executive officers of all the leading tobacco companies in the United States met – illegally – in a conference room at the Plaza Hotel in New York. In the room was a brilliant Hill & Knowlton public relations advisor, a representative of a relatively new and highly lucrative industry – think of the television hit Man Men.

The company directors discussed the emerging science that smoking was strongly correlated to lung disease and many other cancers. Scientists had tarred shaved rabbits with distilled tobacco and soon after the animals had developed cancerous growths. The CEOs decided to attack the science and set up the Tobacco Industry Research Committee.

In the coming years the tobacco industry would resist all government attempts at regulation, and also confuse the public by establishing think tanks, funding university departments and even donating to cancer charities who would confuse the message that smoking kills. This is the birth of fake news, of alternative facts, of deliberate corporate lies. And it has not stopped.

As a child, I nagged my father incessantly to give up smoking. When I was 13 my grandfather James Dunne, a heavy smoker, died of bronchitis. My mother, Bernie, was called Fagash Lil by her non-smoking lover. I was fourteen when she died from an asthma attack. I looked on, helplessly.

The following year her mother Ellen Dunne, a heavy smoker, died from lung cancer. I was in the room to hear her last gasp. My aunt, Nora Dunne, a heavy smoker, died some years later from cancer. I was there too.

I say I nagged Ken incessantly. But the nagging stopped when aged 15 I myself started smoking. I used to steal his cigarettes: children of smokers are three times more likely to take up smoking. He knew, but never let on. He believed my attempts to evade detection would reduce the number of cigarettes I could smoke. I feel largely responsible for my brother starting to smoke.

When in September 2016 my father reached 70 years old I joked that my years of nagging had been unnecessary. He’d made it through to retirement, a golden age. He had moved to Rottingdean with his wife, Janet. He’d finished his garden, his lifelong dream. And his attention was turning to the completion of a book he had been working on for almost half a century.

In November he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which had already spread to his liver and kidneys. By the time of the diagnosis he had lost three stone in weight. We could no longer share a Whiskey, his favourite tipple. He could barely eat, so one last supper had no appeal, nor did recreational drugs.

At first we were told he would not have a year, and then it soon became clear he would have three months at most. His symptoms had developed two months earlier so I suspected he in fact had weeks. I was overly optimistic. In the coming days Janet, and their children Kate and Alex, and myself, sat and watched as my father appeared to be starving to death.

I sat with him as he smoked a cigarette, which continued to be one of the great joys of his day. He told me of the pleasure of the rush of nicotine and the soft, cool breeze on his face. While he smoked, he enjoyed increased lucidity. He talked about John Stuart Mill, and the philosophy that if each give more than they take from society we all will enjoy abundance.

Until the very end he watched the news. He said he was more concerned about the state of the world than his own impending demise. He had spent the last decade campaigning to raise awareness of climate change and was deeply alarmed at the election of Trump. Selfless. Modest. Principled.

Alex and I sat with Ken at the dining table as he smoked two cigarettes. He talked of Lenin meeting the dockers in England, and how Lenin had been disgusted at Stalin’s propensity to fart. I think that’s right. Pain hinders memory. We talked of William Morris, and socialism and the ideas and dreams that remained vital to him until the very end. I remember his grey-green eyes had bleached to acrid, nicotine yellow.

He stubbed out his cigarette and went back to bed.

The final days were sheer horror. My dear father was being replaced by this grotesque, boney, lifeless imposter. He aged a decade every day. I felt disgust and hatred and fear. He slept for longer and longer periods: we knew he was slipping away.

The nurses advised that Ken could still hear, could still think. I was sat with him holding his hand when my sister invited me on a walk. I leaned towards my father and asked him whether he wanted anything down the shops.

This was simply the dark, ironic humour that we shared all our lives. But he raised himself up on one elbow and said clearly and emphatically, FAGS!!! This is the last word he ever said to me. Fags. A few days later I watched as the death rattle rendered him gone.

I am not spiritual nor religious. This was, for me, definitively the end for my father. The same or similar end for the estimated 100,000 people in Britain who die from smoking each and every year.

In the US, 480,000 people are killed by tobacco each year. Rates are declining, suggesting that more than 30 million Americans have died since the tobacco executives met in New York. This is more than 10,000 times the number killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11: twenty times the number killed in every American war combined since 1775.  

Most of these would have been working class, many would have been activists, some will have been people you loved.

Death can consume those left behind with anger. I was angry at my father for dying, angry at him for smoking, angry at him for leaving me an orphan. But as the anger evolved it turned towards the tobacco companies: Phillip Morris International – which makes Marlborough Lights. Ken’s brand. British American Tobacco, Japan Tobacco International: Big Tobacco.

Activists don’t really do anti-tobacco. Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) is an incredible organisation, but not widely known. The arguments range from the fact it is “moralism” to attack smoking, interestingly echoing one of the key messages from tobacco’s long campaign to associate cigarettes with freedom, individual choice.

I asked Nick Dearden, the director of Global Justice Now why tobacco was never the focus of any campaign. He explained the problem of exceptionalism, that the tobacco companies were so bad, and so widely acknowledged to be bad, that they proved a poor example of how corporations are generally acting against the public interest, or how trade deals undermine regulation. I see his point.

But this is a shame. Firstly, the tobacco industry has been the trailblazer and the driving force behind the attack on government regulations designed to protect the public and the natural environment from products and industrial processes which are toxic and deadly, or to some lesser extent harmful.

These tactics included: the direct lobbying of governments; the creation and funding of hundreds of think tanks across the US and the UK promoting neoliberal arguments against regulation; the corruption of academia through the funding of biased science; the illegal smuggling of cigarettes and targeting children.

Indeed, tobacco created the Tobacco Playbook: the methodology used by ExxonMobil, British Petroleum and Koch Industries to sabotage, undermine, delay and evade international attempts to reduce and regulate oil to prevent catastrophic climate change.

And the same techniques used by Coca-Cola to convince parents that their children are obese because they play computer games; by alcohol companies claiming “drink responsibly” warnings are a viable public health strategy. And the gambling industry. And the arms industry.

Tobacco is also particularly interesting because the companies were forced by the United States legal establishment to publish millions upon millions of documents, a treasure trove for researchers evidencing the spin, the lies, the PR, the bullshit. This has resulted in the publication of Golden Holocaust and also the incredible Tobacco Tactics project•.

But these columns for openDemocracy will not focus on tobacco, and they are not going to be about me. They are going to be about the Trump administration, and about post-Brexit Britain. About the bonfire of environmental regulation we are likely to witness, and what that means for the economy, consumers, for farmers, for livestock, for sheep and grass.

They will form part of a series, along with Adam Ramsay, our openDemocracyUK editor, and my fellow columnist, Amy Hall. And all those to join on this journey.

Together, we will examine how corporate power corrupts and distorts democracy in Britain. The lobbying, the revolving doors, the think tanks, the appearances on Question Time. And somewhere along the way, we will need to think about alternatives, strategies, sites of resistance and how we win.

These things can seem very abstract. The word deregulation does not inspire anger for many people. Nor do the acronyms TTIP or CETA. But what we are discussing is death and sickness. Death and sickness which is preventable through scientific discovery and regulation. Regulation is safe-guarding, it is protecting those we love. It is life.

The recent assumption is that journalism should be objective: the reporter should not be part of the community about whom, and for whom, they write. This is not going to be that. I am very angry at Evil Tobacco, and you can see why. This is investigative journalism, campaigning journalism. Because this is how much I care.

I hope you find my contributions to this series both interesting and informative. I’m dedicating them to Ken Walter Montague, who died surrounded by family on 9 December 2016, needing a cigarette.

Brendan Montague is managing director of Spinwatch. *Andy Rowell is both a director of Spinwatch and project lead for Tobacco Tactics.

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