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Around a billion people in the world are Catholics. Large numbers are found in South America, and in developing countries in other parts of the world. So as with other important issues, if the Pope and other senior officials of the catholic church were to take a strong lead on tobacco, it would deal a serious blow to the big tobacco companies, hitting them hardest in some of the very places where they are recruiting vast numbers of new smokers, including some of the fastest growing youth populations in the world.
Two events around the end of last year show that if the Catholic church develops a serious policy on smoking, Philip Morris, at least, will not take it lying down. In late December, as Catholics the world over tune in more attentively to the Christmas spirit, and perhaps pay more heed to the teachings of the church (the Pope’s Christmas message is one the world’s most widely broadcast events), an interesting news item was reported worldwide.
First, a clear signal was given by the Vatican, the mini-state set in the heart of Rome, capital of Italy, which is home to the Pope and headquarters of the Catholic church, that it may be considering a leading role in the world campaign against smoking. An article in an authoritative Catholic publication, the Jesuit review Civilta Cattolica, which observers say would have been written with the clear knowledge and endorsement of the Pope’s most senior aides, declared that smokers cannot damage their own health and that of others “without moral responsibility”. Whereas the most striking theme of the Pope’s work has been respect for human life, the Catholic church as a body had not focused previously on the scientific evidence on smoking and disease. But the article, by Father Giuseppe De Rosa, openly entered the scientific arena, specifically mentioning the dangers to unborn children, with effects lasting throughout their lives. It even acknowledged addiction, when referring to some women being unable to stop smoking even when pregnant, in which case, said Father De Rosa, the addiction lessened their moral responsibility.
While stopping short of classifying smoking as a sin, the article nevertheless described it as “not neutral either in social or indeed moral terms”. Father De Rosa has clearly pushed Catholic thinking well beyond past church pronouncements, which said only that the virtue of temperance should dispose Catholics to avoid every kind of “excess”, with tobacco being mentioned along with food, alcohol and “medicines”, presumably meaning drugs. The article came just as Italy was preparing for the introduction of the new law banning smoking in public places, a development as ground breaking as the lead taken by another European Catholic country, Ireland, just nine months earlier.
The second event received far more publicity around the world. In mid January, the Marlboro Formula One motor racing team was granted an audience with the Pope, who was presented with a magnificent fifth scale model of a Marlboro emblazoned car by the team’s top driver, Michael Schumacher. The Pope paid tribute to the spirit and enthusiasm of the Marlboro Ferrari team, and endorsed the importance of sport in society, stressing the role of sport in education, “especially for the young generation”, the very people Marlboro’s marketing men would hate to see discouraged from smoking, especially by the Pope.
The timetable of the request for the audience with the Pope, and the strings pulled to secure it, are unknown. Normally such a privilege is the result of protracted negotiations and nimble footwork on the dance floor of diplomatic protocol, but whenever it was begun, the ensuing event cannot be a mere coincidence. What is more important is whether the move signalled by Father De Rosa’s article is followed through, to the certain advantage of the health of some of the world’s most disadvantaged people, or whether, yet again, it will just be business as usual for the tobacco industry.