StatistiLie – ANTZ cleverly choosing the wrong year to report

posted by Carl V Phillips

Since I am still trying to recover from my travels, though have about ten more complicated posts I want to write, I will temporize again — this time outsourcing the lie of the day to Dick Puddlecote.

He points out how several anti-smoking liars tried to mislead the public by reporting statistics from the wrong years.  In particular, in response to the many recent claims that rising taxes are driving more smokers to the black market and this will continue to increase, they compared two past years instead of the current data.  They cleverly (obviously intentionally) ignored the facts that (a) most of the taxes that inspired the flurry of concern took effect since the period they report and (b) there are newer statistics available — and indeed even reported in the newspaper.  It will come as no surprise that the ANTZ concluded that their taxes do not drive people to the black market, but the new statistics support the opposite conclusions.

It is even a bit worse than that, so I recommend you read the whole thing.

Though this is about cigarettes, it is very much an anti-THR lie.  It touches on both of the fundamental lies of anti-THR.  It implies that tobacco/nicotine use is somehow so unlike every other consumption choice that consumers will not behave rationally.  That is, unlike what economics tells us about …well, about every choice people make, for some mysterious reason, tobacco consumers will not gravitate toward low-cost competitors when someone increases prices.  If you can be tricked into believing that, then you can be tricked into other departures from the obvious simple economics, like believing that people who choose to consume nicotine/tobacco do not really get any benefit from that choice.  Thus, the lie goes, there is no value in THR because no one really wants to be consuming these products rather than being abstinent.

In addition, the absurd claim that consumers will not shift toward the black market means that taxes can be raised, without bound, and smokers will respond only by quitting.  (Note that a ban is basically an attempt to raise the tax to infinity, though incomplete enforcement means that it is always actually finite.  Thus, punitive taxes are effectively partial bans.)  For any other good, a ban or price increase will cause substitute markets — in particular, black market supply chains — to gain market share.  But if smokers are the exception to that, and will just obey like they are supposed to, then universal cessation is just a few tax increases away.  And so, their lie goes, there is no reason to pursue THR.

I am adding the new tag to this blog, statistiLie, to try to identify lies that are based on intentionally using the wrong statistics.  (As always, keeping in mind that when an author knows so little that he does not know a claim is wrong, it does not change the existence of the lie, but merely its nature.  An author who unintentionally uses clearly wrong statistics is lying about his knowledge.)  A large portion of all anti-THR lies involve statistics, of course.  I will try to reserve this for the particular case when it is clear that there are statistics that are useful for addressing a particular point, but other numbers are chosen instead, and moreover that the author hides the existence of the more useful numbers.

I did not want to merely use the tag “statistics” because too many people observe that statistics are used to lie and jump to the conclusion that those quoting statistics should not be trusted.  But statistics are the only way we move toward the truth in these matters, and I want to push back against this sullying of the word.  It is interesting to note that in this case that the ANTZ were claiming that the various commentators who based their conclusions on the right statistics were lying.  There is a danger that the real liars will accuse someone else of lying with statistics; indeed, it is a typical ploy by the liars.

Finally, it is useful to note that some anti-smoking lies are pro-THR (e.g., exaggerations of the risk from ETS) — still lies with everything that implies, but they do tend to encourage THR rather than discouraging.  But the statistiLies about the economics (black markets, plain packaging, advertising, bans, etc.) very often try to support the core anti-THR assumptions.  Thus, those lies about smoking turn out to be an anti-THR issue.

5 responses to “StatistiLie – ANTZ cleverly choosing the wrong year to report

  1. Pingback: TrANTZlating “no safe level” | Anti-THR Lie of the Day

  2. I don’t have the particular study / posting in front of me for the details at the moment, but Dr. Siegel (and perhaps Chris Snowdon as well?) did a wonderful analysis on it about two years ago. There was a study taken as claiming that Marlboro was deliberately increasing its nicotine levels to “hook young smokers.”

    A bit of research however turned up the fact that the study had covered something like the years 1998 to 2003 and indeed showed a very small increase. However, if the authors had included the figures for 1997 and 2004 (both of which were available to them) the “increase” would have become the “flat line.”

    A favorite stat quote of mine, “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” — Aaron Levenstein

    – MJM

    • Carl V Phillips

      That picking and choosing which data to use is, of course, the classic way to lie with statistics. Rather worse that the case presented here, I would argue. At least there is some excuse for this one (see my next comment), while the type of year-choosing that you cite is clearly an attempt to lie about not just the conclusion (as in this case) but about what the data even shows (which as a scientist somehow bothers me in itself, on top of the other).

  3. Carl V Phillips

    UPDATE: There was a debate going on about this post on twitter, though it would have been more useful here (where more people would see it, and where we could use full grammatical sentences). The suggestion was that (a) it might be better to use older but more refined data to try to detect a relationship and (b) the relationship detected before was no trend in black markets as the price went up in the past.

    The problem with these arguments — valid at first blush — is that the issue in question is whether current claims that the current black market uptick is due to the current rise in taxes to levels never seen before. The older data and trend only provide a better answer than less perfect data and the current association if you (1) assume the response is linear and (2) assume that permanent changes in social dynamics do not matter. To put that another way: (1) is the assumption that there is no point at which there is a rapid acceleration in uptake (of using the black market), which is clearly not true; (2) is the assumption that people shift to the black market the same way they would pick among products on the store shelf, and there is no big barrier that, once breached by many people, is no longer so big.

    By coincidence, the dynamics of these behaviors are remarkably close to the dynamics of adopting THR, a model of which will appear in the blog shortly — I hope two posts after this one.

  4. I think you’re quite correct about both #2s.

    Taking the second one first:

    If I’m buying commercial cigarettes at $20/carton and hear that I can buy them from a guy in a van for $17.50/carton I’m not all that likely to take the “risk” of not only possibly getting an inferior product but also that I might just have the bad luck of being picked up in some sort of “sting” operation and criminally charged. BUT… if the choice is between $200/carton and $175/carton — heh, that’s a horse of a different color! All of a sudden I’m a lot more likely to take the fairly small “risk” involved even though the percentage savings is the same. And in the case of cigarette smuggling the percentages probably do NOT remain the same: that $200 carton is more likely going to be offered on the black market at $100… a HUGE savings.

    And then, looking at your first #2: Once the switchover is made, the government is going to have a hard time moving people back. If you’ve been buying black market with no problems for years and suddenly the tax goes back to reasonable levels, I’m afraid the government will find itself largely out of luck: people will stick with the “van man” even if they’re once again back around the $20/carton vs. $17.50/carton stage: they’ll see no big reason to change.

    The same (even more so perhaps) will happen with vaping if the government bans vaping altogether or even simply bans nicotine e-liquids. Unsafe garage-produced e-cigs will develop and proliferate, and pure nicotine will be quite easy to smuggle. (Question here for the vape folks: Is nicotine “produced” at all outside of extracting it from tobacco plants? If so, is that common/cheap?)


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