by Carl V Phillips
The ANTZ often appeal to the “think of the children” argument. But when they say that, what they are saying is that they consider all tobacco and nicotine users to be children. And not just children, but either mere toddlers or children who have not been raised in a commercial culture where merchants try to tout their wares and the rest of us work hard to ignore them (which is to say, they were somehow not raised in any post-agrarian human culture). This is the only possible interpretation of their persistent claim that marketing by merchants is the reason that people use tobacco products. It is a fundamental anti-THR lie because if there are actually no benefits, then it must be that everyone really wants to become abstinent, so there is no value in THR.
Yesterday, Brad Rodu posted a great analysis of the actual evidence about tobacco advertising and consumption in the US. He notes that the persistent lie is backed by no evidence and goes on to present some of the evidence that affirmatively argues against it. This begins with the observation that tobacco use was popular long before there was a marketing effort as well as the fact that Sweden (with a complete tobacco advertising ban) has usage levels that are similar to other rich countries. His new analysis points out recent US Federal Trade Commission reports that show there is a strong correlation between advertising expenditures and changes in smoking. A strong inverse (negative) correlation, that is: advertising expenditures increased as total consumption decreased.
Of course, the ANTZ have a response to that: Due to their own terribly impressive anti-smoking efforts (i.e., telling people smoking was unhealthy four decades ago and waiting for the obvious effect, plus a little fiddling around the margins) the cigarette companies were desperately spending on advertising to try to counter their efforts. Indeed, Rodu partially concurs with that, suggesting that the sharp drop in advertising after 2004 was the result of the companies giving up on what they had discovered to be a futile effort.
But assuming that is true, it is clear evidence that the main conclusion (that marketing is the primary or only cause of consumption) is clearly false. The perception by merchants that they could reverse the slow downward drift in consumption with a massive increase in advertising, even if they were right, would do nothing to support the original lie. Given that they were wrong, it is affirmative evidence against it.
Further evidence can be found in the increasingly desperate and silly measure that the ANTZ are pursuing to defend it, like insisting that logos on packaging and even the tiny arcane batch identifying codes printed on the cigarette paper are the “advertising” that causes the consumption. In case it was not clear that the ANTZ were just making this all up, their claim that it was not the glossy magazine ads and billboards (now banned) or television (long banned) or sponsorships that kept 1/5th of the population smoking, it was the three-letter codes printed just above the filter in 4-point type that kept tens of millions enthralled. If only we had figured that out sooner! (“Liars” really gives them too much credit sometimes, huh?)
Rodu points out that the situation with smokeless tobacco (again, in the US) is a bit more complicated. Advertising for snuff/snus did increase at the same time that consumption was increasing. He points out that snus consumption was increasing at about the same rate that chewing tobacco was decreasing, so that substitution explains a lot of the trend. What he does not note is the common challenge in analyzing economic data, simultaneity problems. These are cases where X may affect Y and also Y may affect X, and so it is difficult to measure the independent effects. In this case, there is no doubt that the increasing popularity of spit-free smokeless tobacco, as people learned about THR and also sought an anywhere anytime alternative, caused more advertising. Merchants have more incentive to advertise in a larger market, especially one that is emerging and brand loyalty has not yet been established.
Did the advertising also increase consumption of this low-risk alternative to smoking? Perhaps, and if it did then it provided important public health benefits. It would be possible to try to estimate how large this effect was, trying to sort out the causation in the other direction and other factors. But it would require a rather sophisticated analysis that apparently no one has done. Of course, the ANTZ are not interested in doing honest economic analysis any more than they are in doing honest epidemiology. To them, “science” is a rhetorical tool to be manipulated for activism, not a way to really find things out. Moreover, as I have pointed out previously, they are clearly incapable of doing even remotely passable economic analysis.
The real economists who worked in tobacco control exited a long time ago. They have been long-since replaced by people who assume that consumers pay a very high price for something that has no benefits for them because… er, well, um… Just Because! Needless to say, sociology and “public health” curricula do not require even freshman-level economics.
Tobacco advertisements “cause” smoking about as much as wine advertisements “cause” people to drink wine. It’s about branding and winning market share. Period. Children don’t start using tobacco because of the ads and fancy packages anymore than they start taking street drugs because of the ads and fancy packaging. Oh, wait…street drugs don’t have ads or fancy packaging, do they? But kids still do drugs? Hmm….