Health Canada recently predicted that 3 million Canadians who are alive today will die due to this preventable problem. The situation has been described as an epidemic of unequaled proportions. To put this into perspective, the Walkerton water scandal claimed 7 lives, SARS claimed 37 lives, and the Listeria scare 20 lives. There were public inquiries about each of these problems and hundreds of thousands of words written in the media. These tragedies reformed our utility systems, governments, food processing and our health care delivery systems, as it well should have. It is therefore astounding that 9% of the population will die needlessly with relatively little intervention which could stop this senseless loss. For some people, that is not only wrong, but a call to action!
As a young boy growing up in Brantford Ontario, Garfield Mahood discovered his talent for sales. In university, he became fascinated with the principles of social change. In his budding career, his passion for justice emerged. He had been engaged in the fight against the Vietnam war, and later he took on environmental pollution in an era when activists were seen by many Canadians as threats to order and progress. But forerunners don’t measure the value of their objective by the opposition to it. They are “wired” for overcoming and they prefer to follow their own path. Garfield Mahood’s life, however, took a definitive turn when a young nurse decided she needed him to advise her in the founding of her campaign for non-smokers’ rights. He was reluctant at first to take on another battle but her persistence was remarkable, and the potential of the challenge inspired him. In 1976, when the budding group was just 2 years old, Garfield became their Executive Director. The challenge was among the biggest that any activist group had undertaken. In order to be successful in their mission to educate people about the known but suppressed dangers of smoking, they would have to take on the entire tobacco industry who were spending billions of dollars to hide the truth about smoking from the Canadian public.
It may have seemed to be overly optimistic to make the industry their target but it was the industry that Garfield and others insisted was the problem. The tobacco industry’s operating structure and tactics have been compared in court to the mafia. Scientists have deemed their products to be more addictive than cocaine and more deadly than heroine. Numerous times it has been proven that the industry has lied to the courts, deceived the public, and subverted regulators about the known dangers of their products and their tactics to get people, particularly young people, to use them. For these reasons, many people believe that the tobacco industry is not a legitimate industry. The result of the use of tobacco world-wide has been more than 50 million deaths – the biggest genocide in the history of mankind!
In the early days of the non-smokers’ rights campaign, it would have been an exaggeration to call this a David and Goliath battle. Garfield was the only employee and periodically the organization didn’t have enough money to pay his salary. On several occasions, he lent money to the association to keep it going without knowing if, or when, it would be possible to pay him back. The tobacco companies, on the other hand, were spending millions of dollars to openly promote the use of tobacco. Furthermore, television, radio and print media were hostile to the group’s message because they were the recipients of millions of dollars for advertising campaigns, and they were reluctant to “bite the hand that was feeding them”. The chances of success would have seemed slim in the eyes of any rational person; however, the size of the battle didn’t overwhelm Garfield, nor was he depending on the naysayer’s for their predictions of the likelihood of his winning this war. Year after year they persisted, expanded, and built their case before the Canadian people. They educated the public, bureaucrats and politicians about the growing mountain of proof that tobacco use is the cause of numerous health conditions and premature death. It was a landmark when scientific research supported what they had learned from personal observation. Second-hand smoke was 6 times more dangerous than inhaled smoke, and people were at extreme risk when being exposed to it.
Attitudes about smoking and second hand smoke began to change. Scientists, researchers, and soon forerunner politicians were no longer afraid to say what they knew was the truth – but that was still the beginning. Until the public was aware and concerned about the problem, there was no political will to change the laws to protect non-smokers or to make smoking less appealing.
The stones they were throwing at Goliath seemed to be relatively harmless but they threw them with deadly accuracy. They proposed increased taxation on cigarette sales which angered some smokers, but discouraged many others from smoking. This proved to be among the single most effective strategy. It was so successful, the tobacco companies resorted to smuggling cigarettes into the country to avoid the impact of high prices. In 1999 the City of Toronto’s ground breaking ban on smoking in restaurants and later all public and workplaces was a milestone victory for non smokers’ rights and public health in Canada. The ban spread across the country and around the world. Toronto has recently banned smoking in cars when children are passengers and are considering a ban in areas where children play. The earlier bans on advertising and the warnings on packages also contributed to the incremental reduction in smoking over the past two decades from 50% to 19%.
When Garfield began this war, his small team seemed to have little chance of success. They drew very little attention, but with success came other problems. On a trip to Argentina to speak about tobacco use, his life was threatened. He was warned not to cause any problems for the industry. Later, confiscated files from a high ranking tobacco industry executive revealed that blackmail had been contemplated as a way of “neutralizing” Garfield. In some countries, fighting against the tobacco industry is a very deadly business.
The battle isn’t over. Tobacco smuggling continues to be a problem, and the glamorization of smoking in films is an area of concern. However, countless millions of people have been rescued from the deadly effects of smoking, and there are numerous legal proceeding in Canada against the tobacco companies to reclaim damages to public health. In spite of the struggles, uncertainty, and the risks, the 30+ year battle has been rewarding for Garfield . He and his team have accomplished more than they ever dreamed. Canadian attitudes toward smoking have changed. Our policies on tobacco control have been the forerunner of smoking regulation around the world. That is in part due to Garfield and his team and others like him who have fought long and hard for justice and the truth about tobacco. He is an exceptional forerunner who has built, served and overcome. In May 2007, Garfield Mahood was awarded the Order of Canada for his contribution to justice for non smokers and public health in Canada.
(C) Paul Weigel 2009