Can we agree not to make obviously incredible claims?

by Carl V Phillips

Related to the claim in my recent post that THR advocates stick to solid science, and are properly skeptical and critical, while anti-THR is grounded entirely in unabashed lies, I really hope THR advocates do not start citing making strong claims based on this report that:

One third of smokers say, in a University of Canterbury (UC) survey, they would use a nicotine electronic cigarette to quit now, if it was available.

I will grant that it is delightful to see anti-smoking sponsored research that might actually give some insight into how to reduce smoking (though note that this was funded by Murray Laugesen’s shop, not the ANTZ).  And there are probably some useful insights to be gleaned from the actual study results.  But not from that press release.  1/3??!  E-cigarettes are legal and widely available in a lot of places that are not terribly unlike New Zealand, and the successful smoking cessation they have facilitated is impressive.  But nowhere close to 1/3 of smokers are using them to try to quit.

A realistic estimate for e-cigarette uptake can be found by simply looking at the USA or the UK.   Indeed, I suspect that most NZers who really want to use e-cigarettes, like Canadians who wish to avoid the ban there, can get them if they really want.  So asking about actual usage would probably provide a better realistic estimate than this cheap-talk hypothetical.

There are ways to honestly interpret the results, and these are still undoubtedly pro-THR.  And that survey result was what it was, of course.  But reporting it without the realistic context as if it were a simple picture of reality is not a good choice.  The ANTZ frequently make claims that are this discordant with observed reality based on a survey result.  We must not.

My Alberta shop did a survey years ago that asked smokers about “hypothetical” low-risk alternatives (that were really understated descriptions of existing low-risk alternatives) and a huge number of subjects (most of whom had never actually considered trying the alternatives) indicated that they would try them.  Needless to say, we did not assert the conclusions that widespread adoption would happen if there were a change in the availability of products.  Rather, we examined the implications of the difference between the responses and the observed reality.

Similarly, if you want to estimate how people will actually respond to prices, you need to do what economists and marketers do (look at how people actually respond to prices), not merely ask them a hypothetical question and conclude:

if cigarette prices doubled, two thirds of smokers would quit

Real prices have doubled several times historically.  They more than double as you move from some places to others.  None of those show a 2/3 reduction in smoking.

Finally, I hate to laugh at pro-THR messages, but I could not help it when I read:

Smokers sampled nicotine electronic cigarettes and liked them 83 percent as much as their own brand on average.

Granted this is not nearly as funny as Snowdon’s ROTFL-level extended discourse on a particularly stupid ANTZ’s claim about something being “100% easy”.  But it was still LOL-level for me.  What the hell is liking something 83% as much?  (And notice it is not merely 80% as much, but a full 83%!)  Presumably there was some arbitrary scale in the survey, and the e-cigarettes scored .83 the level that own-brand cigarettes did.  But there is no cardinal scale of liking (other than the economic approach of trying to measure willingness to pay, which seems to have been absent), so while an ordinal list of the ratings of multiple products could mean something, it is silly to make the claim that they did.

Please, people, do not go telling the FDA or your local politicians that 1/3 of smokers plan to switch to e-cigarettes and that they are 83% as good as smoking.  Our goal is to make it clear that we are the reality-based side of this debate.

3 responses to “Can we agree not to make obviously incredible claims?

  1. Fr. Jack Kearney

    Well put!

  2. Cindy Lanning

    Carl, you said: “Indeed, I suspect that most NZers who really want to use e-cigarettes, like Canadians who wish to avoid the ban there, can get them if they really want.”

    Just wanted to note that there is no ban in Canada, and never has been. In 2009, an advisory was issued by Health Canada (not a ban). I appeared on VP Live recently to dispel this commonly-accepted mythical ban, which can be seen here:

    I would welcome anyone interested in learning more about the legalities regarding the e-cig industry in Canada to check out my new ‘Legalities’ page here:

    • Carl V Phillips

      Just a warning to readers: that video is over two hours long — perhaps a reference to a particular range of minutes to view for those interested in this point would be useful. Cindy?

      Whatever the actual statutory authority of the government in Canada, it has not been litigated like it was in the US, so there is genuine ambiguity; at CASAA, we do not claim expertise on legal matters outside of the US, so I cannot comment further. But Customs is still seizing some shipments to consumers and people widely believe they cannot do it (simple empirical points — not legal analysis), so there is certainly something ban-like in place, albeit apparently easily (though not always) evaded. So the comparison to NZ might not be perfect if the NZ ban is more complete (which I have no idea about). Still, the point is that anyone with an intense preference can presumably get e-cigarettes in any generally-free society so any estimate of how many would-be users are stopped by prohibitions needs to be considered in the context of how many are actually evading the ban.

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