Just what do the anti-tobacco extremists think they are regulating?

For the last few months, a lot of my contemplation about the logic and sociology of anti-tobacco has focused on the question, “what exactly do they think they are regulating or trying to create appropriate public policy about?”  My working thought was landmines, but I recently refined that because I think that they have directly answered my question with their current advertising campaign.

To explain:  Landmines are a scourge that kill and maim thousands of innocent victims in many parts of the world.  There is an effort to ban them supported by most countries in the world (with the holdouts being, not surprisingly, the most militarized countries that largely fight their wars on someone else’s land, a few that really have no interest, and, sadly, a few whose people are often victims).  Here were some observations that led me to the comparison:

-The call for an outright international ban of landmines is explicit and is widely supported.  Anti-tobacco activists are aware that there is very little support for prohibition, so almost never admit they support it, but they act as if there were as much support for a ban as there is for mines.  They act as if current regulation of tobacco products were really prohibition.  For example, when someone obeys the regulations that are in place, such as by changing the packaging of former “light” brands or continuing to sell in ways or places that are allowed, the extremists characterize it as a “loophole”.  By that standard, all those people who drive just below the speed limit are taking advantage of a loophole that needs to be closed.  If there were a consensus to ban driving and the speed limit were actually intended to prohibit driving, then thus merely obeying the letter of the law would perhaps constitute a “loophole”, as it would for a variant on landmines that skirted the treaty.  The anti-tobacco extremists seem to not understand that there is not a prohibition nor general support for one.

-Almost all victims of landmines are innocents, involuntarily exposed because they had no choice but to work on mined land or because they had no idea that there were mines where they were walking.  Thus, “consumers” of mines received no benefits from them and did not consent to or benefit from their deployment.  (Perhaps the case differs for the rare victims who are intentional combatants and encounter mines used in set-piece combat situations, like to guard a military base against approaching invaders.)  This fits the extremists’ bizarre interpretation of cigarette/tobacco/nicotine consumption as some complicated involuntary spasm, rather than as a consumption choice that has benefits and costs, and thus might represent rational decision making (and undoubtedly does in some, but not all, cases).  Their model is that, unlike every other consumer good – iPhones, Starbucks, Hoegaarden, Priuses – the distribution of the product only benefits those distributing it, not those receiving it.  Never mind the volition involved in purchasing and consumption, as well as the the many known benefits; their theory is that tobacco users (even those using low-risk tobacco) are unwilling targets, as if they were victims of landmines.

(Some readers might argue that smokers are often the target of the extremists’ attacks despite the claim that they are the intended beneficiaries of anti-tobacco policies and propaganda, which is a rather sharp contrast with anti-mine activists.  But in some ways this still fits the model:  If one denies that the users are getting any benefit, then torturing users until they change their inexplicable behavior could actually benefit them.  This contrasts with all normal consumption decisions, where the benefits of consumption to the consumer must exceed the costs, and thus increasing the costs necessarily hurts the consumer, either by driving him away from the good (in which case all net benefits are lost) or raising the cost without changing the behavior.)

-Those distributing landmines are trying to injure and kill people.  While it is certainly the case that many people in power in tobacco companies for several decades demonstrated a callous disregard for known health effects, and undoubtedly some of those currently in power still have that attitude, suppliers do not actively want to kill anyone.  Moreover, many of those steering the industry now are basically riding the tiger, trying to reverse the damage done by cigarettes in the only way possible, by turning low-risk products into a viable alternative for producers and consumers.  One of the silly demands by some activists is that if a company really cares about harm reduction, it should just stop selling tobacco products.  (Gee, I wonder if anyone would step in to supply the demand if that happened – let me go find a high school economics textbook or a well-read eleven-year-old to help me figure out that tough question.)  But that demand would make sense for landmines; if a particular actor stopped deploying mines, it is not like someone else would step in and make the same ground deadly, because it is genuinely all supply driven (there is no demand).  There is no reason to ask the distributors of landmines to do anything other than cease.

But despite the parallels between the reality of landmines and the confused attitude toward tobacco (and I think the one about the difference between a demand-side and a supply-side phenomenon is particularly useful), there are a few things fundamentally wrong with the comparison.  Landmines are obviously not intended to provide any benefit to those on the receiving end, and are not a consumer product.  They are intended as weapons and their proponents argue that they serve a worthy purpose by killing some intended targets.  Banning them, like banning any weapon, necessarily interferes with the plans of those who want to use force, not the choices of consumers.  While I still think it is fair to say anti-tobacco extremists act as if they are trying to regulate the distribution of landmines to consumers, it seems safe to assume that even most of them recognize that tobacco/nicotine does not represent an intentional assault by one group on enemies that they are trying to kill, and who obviously would prefer that the product did not exist at all.

After struggling for a better comparison for a while, I found it.  Actually, it was given to me.  I did not have to make up an analogy, because the extremists actually volunteered it.  The American Legacy Foundation (the huge anti-tobacco organization paid for by a de facto sales tax on U.S. cigarettes) recently re-released its “shards o’ glass” campaign (note that this webpage does not seem to work with all browser configurations; with billions of dollars and a primary mission of delivering propaganda, and they cannot even create a fully functional website – or perhaps my security software just recognized it as malicious).  For those who have not seen the campaign, which debuted in a Superbowl ad a few years ago (talk about dollars!), they liken tobacco products to popsicles that contain pieces of broken glass, creating fake television ads for the latter that are supposed to parody ads for cigarettes (which, of course, have not existed for decades — in addition to thinking they are dealing with the wrong product, the extremists are definitely stuck in a bygone era).

The new version of this advertisement, which they recently started hyping, features new fake products that are clearly intended to mimic the Camel Orbs style of products (though perhaps, since they are not in a childproof container, maybe it is really supposed to be Nicorette lozenges).  With its emphasis on dissolvable oral products and presumably intentional invocation of the fiberglass myth(*), Legacy’s propaganda is clearly aimed at discouraging the use of low-risk nicotine products, making it the worst kind of anti-harm-reduction (and thus anti-public-health) extremist propaganda.

[(*)There is a zombie myth (one that will not die despite having absolutely no support in reality) that smokeless tobacco products have fiberglass added to them.  This actually seems to not have been engineered as propaganda.  It appears to originate from people not understanding that intact mucosa can absorb all manner of chemicals, and thus thinking that some method of making holes was necessary for nicotine delivery, and the appearance of salt crystals that could be mistaken for glass in some products when subject to certain conditions.  Of course, the anti-THR propagandists have been happy to perpetuate the myth.]

Presumably Legacy intended the broken glass silliness to be a bumper sticker for their naive foot soldiers (“using smokeless tobacco is just like sucking broken glass”) and a “nyah nyah” point for children who are inclined to believe propaganda to deploy when criticizing their tobacco-using elders or more rebellious peers.  I am sure that American Legacy Foundation President Cheryl Healton and most of her top lieutenants are not so stupid as to think that dissolvable tobacco products – which have no proven risks and are clearly very low risk – are similar to a product that would likely cause rapid death from internal trauma, and they are far too political to actually make such a claim.  But they clearly would like their foot soldiers and target audience of impressionable children to believe and repeat exactly that message.

But this analysis is about their view of the product they are fighting, not their lack of ethics, and a closer analysis of the content of the ads reveals more about that.  Yes, they try to ridicule consumers who are joyously popping the acutely deadly products into their mouths.  But they also show a mock industry spokesman giving a version of the standard message that these products are intended for adults only and are intended to meet demand from legal consumers in legal situations.  The message is not merely that low-risk products are an absurdly deadly travesty, but that efforts to obey the law and sell such products only to adults are also somehow a travesty.  By trying to turn this message into a joke, Legacy makes clear that they really think they are fighting the marketing and consumption of something just like broken glass in food.  If that really were the case, then they would be justified in attacking products that reduce the risk by a factor of one-hundred (why merely almost eliminate the risk of a product that is utterly valueless) and ridiculing the notion that it could be a rational choice by adults.

Like landmines, no one would want to be on the receiving end of the glass product.  Deployment of both products is rapidly deadly without question.  Any attempt to distribute any version of either product would be a homicidal act.  If the glass product somehow actually existed, everyone would support the complete ban that the extremists seem to mistakenly think is widely supported for tobacco.  But unlike landmines, which are openly intended to kill enemies (though they usually kill innocent bystanders), the glassed food is portrayed as being a voluntary decision by the consumer.  So it is not so much something analogous to landmine use by military forces that the extremists think they are trying to eliminate, but something that absolutely no one would benefit from or ever consider doing, but that is inexplicably extremely popular.

Yes, I know that the ad campaign is intended as parody, but the fact that they think this parody is anything other than random farce tells us a lot about their fantasy worldview.  It is clear from hundreds of statements they make that they think they are dealing with something other than a popular consumer product, albeit one that is quite dangerous in one of its several forms.  With that background, the glassed food parody is really an aha moment.  The behavior of the anti-tobacco extremists is frequently unethical and seems ludicrously out of touch with reality when we assume that they actually understand the role of tobacco in society and people’s lives; but if we model them as thinking they are actually on a campaign against glass-filled food, everything they do makes more sense.

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