New Internationalist

Reviews

Issue 152

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NEW BOOKS

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This month’s books look at the hazards of smoking and describe how we can save the environment.

Editor: Amanda Root

Smoke screens

The Smoke Ring - Tobacco, Money and Multinational Politics
by Peter Taylor
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Sphere Books 1985 £2.95 A$7.95 (pbk)
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Children get involved in the tabacco industry at an early age - selling Lark cigarettes in Ecuador.
Photo: UNICEF

Peter Taylor’s informative and lively paperback explains how an industry which is responsible for a million premature deaths each year around the world manages to keep both consumers and governments addicted to tobacco. It is a fascinating account of a life and death struggle between health and wealth.

The adverse effects of smoking on health are well-known. Taylor shows that cigarette smoking is the single biggest cause of preventable deaths in the industrialised world and very soon will be the number one killer in the Third World as well. But those who care about health have to compete with the wealthy: the tobacco multinationals generate profits of $3,000 million a year. This money forms these companies’ lifeblood. It is a flow that, says Peter Taylor, the multinationals have ‘no intention of letting anybody cut off’. And the balance continues to tip in favour of the tobacco multinationals’ wealth. While cigarette consumption is increasing at only one per cent per annum in the industrial countries, in the Third World it is rising at over three per cent.

Taylor argues that the best way of curbing this massive threat to the world’ health is to place a complete ban on all cigarette advertising and promotion. He argues that millions are persuaded to make smoking a habit because of the image the tobacco companies create of smoking as something closely associated with financial success, sex-appeal, sporting achievement and a healthy outdoor life.

In countries where there are restrictions on advertising the industry has turned increasingly to sponsorship of sport and the arts in order to get its message across. In New Zealand, for example, Rothmans have sponsored the Winfield helicopter for the Auckland life-saving association. In Australia last year Prime Minister Bob Hawke presented the Winfield cup to the winners of the Rugby league in Sydney. In Britain there is heavy television coverage for John Player cricket, as there is for Benson and Hedges and Embassy snooker.

Taylor maintains the companies gain television exposure and an association with health and vitality through their sponsorship of sport. By sponsoring the arts they achieve respectability and prestige.

Questions are, however, still asked about the health risks associated with smoking. The companies have defended themselves by side-stepping the health issue and talking about the benefits to the economy and the liberty of the citizen to smoke.

The Smoke Ring, says Taylor, is a complicated system of advertising images, political connections and economic power. He shows how politicians such as Jesse Helms, the Republican Senator for North Carolina, have successfully protected the tobacco industry. The legal system usually works hand-in-hand with the tobacco industry. So, despite a few governments, including those of Scandinavia, Sudan and Western Australia, banning advertising, the author sees the main hope lying with the consumers.

In a new concluding chapter, added to the new edition, Peter Taylor points out that there is strong evidence that non-smokers’ health is also damaged by being with smokers. For the first time doctors seem prepared to use their considerable political muscle on the smoking issue, he adds.

If you are about to reach for another comforting cigarette or just want to know how the international tobacco companies operate, the very readable and challenging Smoke Ring is for you. Peter Taylor’s book in investigative journalism as its best.

John Tanner

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Earthing ecology

The User’s Guide To The Environment
by John McCormick
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Cogan Page 1985 £6.95
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What John McCormick does extremely well is to give a lucid, telling and spare account of the environment world-wide. The exposition is first-rate. His careful and factual prose is indeed a model for eco-writing: too often environmentalists spoil their case by emotional overstatement. Take the section on aerosols and ozone:

‘Another problem is the possible threat posed by aerosols to the stratospheric ozone, an unstable form of oxygen which absorbs ultraviolet radiation. Many aerosol cans, refrigerants and solvents contain chlorofluorocarbons which, in sufficient quantities, can destroy ozone. Any increase in the amount of ultraviolet radiation reaching the surface of the earth could harm plant and animal life. Among other things, there is some evidence that ultraviolet radiation is linked to skin cancer.

Of course not all problems can be put so tentatively: sometimes dangers and damage are certain. But the impact then is reinforced by the scrupulousness of such passages.

But consider this sentence, from a brief, oddly-placed section in the middle of the book called Effecting the Solutions: ‘Once links are understood, everyone is capable of lessening the impact of his or her way of life on the environment - and without any major changes in lifestyles.’

Does it have a familiar ring? Imagine a lissom figure on your screen holding up some kind of container and smilingly assuring you that everyone can look like him or her and without any of that dreary dieting or exercise . . . The intelligent reaction to those kind of claims is surely scepticism.

I suppose one can argue about what constitutes a ‘major’ change, or for that matter what is involved in ‘understanding’ I appreciate McCormick’s urgency to set conservation and I would not want for moment to discourage anyone by making it sound hard. But I do think it is vital to consider some of the moral and intellectual issues.

Perhaps these are cavils, though they are familiar enough dilemmas to most of us whale - and paper-bag - saving, middle-class, caring people. But McCormick has a somewhat different audience in mind. ‘Limit yourself to the number of cars you really need,’ he urges, and in the same vein offers advice on what to do ‘if you have a second home’. I wish I could believe that the affluent affluent could be reached by appeals to planetary common-sense.

Kim Taplin


CLASSICS

The Women’s Room
…being the book that described what women want

BURNT socks. That is my memory of The Women’s Room. I read it seven years ago and it was the acrid smell of burnt socks that stuck in my mind. A suburban woman living a dog’s life on a new housing estate - bullied, domineered and unloved - puts her husband’s dark socks in the oven to dry them quickly (she had washed and dried his white ones, but he rants because he wants a dark pair) and they burn.

By describing one woman’s search for love within a typical ‘happily-ever-after’ marriage, Marilyn French has cracked the code that most of us live by. The Women’s Room is, par excellence, a tale of our times.

The woman - Mira - tries the married-and-mortgaged suburban lifestyle, but it does not work. And Marilyn French would have you know how hard Mira tried to make it work. She describes, with grim humour, Mira’s ceaseless and thankless routine as a young Mum, living in an apartment with two babies. She recalls - in vivid nerve-wracking detail - Mira’s endless epic journeys upstairs, lugging the tots and her purse first, and then rushing down for the baby-carriage and her shopping, fearing that her babies will come to harm or her purchases will have been stolen. Mira is happily unhappy: her world is limited by diapers.

Mira, and her hubbie Norm, soon move to a new housing estate. Once there, she retains her self-respect becoming a super-efficient housewife: devising a filing-card system to make sure that she does the major cleaning jobs in her house in strict rotation. Mira’s emotional support comes from other women. Nearly every afternoon she meets her neighbours to drink iced coffee and tell funny stories about the barely tolerable (but never questioned) demands of toddlers and spouses, sock-burnings, and other similar episodes. Their humour just about saves them from losing their marbles.

Mira survives. One move later and she is mistress of a four-bathroomed house, but she is still cleaning as if her life depended on it. In a way it does. She thinks (like most of her generation) that loveless marriages can be held together by keeping scum off sink-rims and cleaning toilets once a day. She could have been right. If marriage is a trade, then her livelihood certainly depended on the fulfillment of such tasks.

Norm, however, intervenes. He has taken up with, as Mira primly puts it, ‘a little chippy’. She is embittered: life, she thinks has cheated her. ‘She had been presented with a set of terms: your function is to marry, raise children, and if you can, keep your husband. If you follow these rules (smile, diet, smile, don’t nag, smile, cook, smile, clean) you will keep him. The terms were clear and she had accepted them and they had failed her.’ Still, the divorce does do some good. It stirs her out of her limbo of complacency: she goes back to university.

It is 1968. Mira - still a fully-paid up member of the masses to the core of her Persil-clean heart - protests against the war in Vietnam. But, like many an ordinary woman on the street, she cannot throw herself into such political activities. She views them as futility personified instead, she immerses herself in the social life of the university. She finds her witty, garrulous, loving and proto-feminist circle of women friends a thousand times more worthwhile than formal political meetings or involvements. (The men, if you are wondering what has happened to them, are usually at the latter sort of gathering. Or, if they are around, they never quite shine as much as the women.)

Mira continues her quest, deciding - whilst clutching her umpteenth brandy at an ungodly hour - that all she can ever know of love is mutual and unconditional recognition of other people, as they are. She decides that we need to be witnesses for each other: no matter how flawed that other person feels herself to be. This, she reckons, is what love is. (Or as near as dammit.)

But getting still closer to other people remains a poser. Despite messy, vulnerable intimacy Mira finds that lots of men (and a few women) can still be rats. She courts a man called Ben who stops loving her when he finds out that he cannot be an overall boss in their relationship. Scratch a liberated ‘new’ man and find an old-fashioned husband?

Our heroine is left to ponder the difference between loneliness and solitude. And she slips from one to the other: adrift; needy; bruised. Her victory (if that is what her gritty acceptance of isolation - and unfulfillment - can be called) lies in giving voice to the yearnings of millions of women.

Amanda Root

The Women’s Room
by Marilyn French
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Jove/HBJ 1977
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