Monthly Archives: March 2013

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.


I don’t usually just link to a blog post unless I have something to add (that is what twitter is for).  But anything I could write would take longer to read than the original, which is just perfect, and I … Continue reading

ANTZ telling the truth… about the fact that they are liars

by Carl V Phillips

Hmm, hard to decide whether this counts as truth or lying.  When serial liars actually publish a statement about how to be more effective liars, does that count as rare moment of honesty?  I think, perhaps, that it would be honesty if they admitted that what they were doing was figuring out how to lie better.  Alas, they never actually admit that, so they are even lying in their discussion of how to lie.

The case in point is a relatively new article, published in the journal/comic book, Tobacco Control (which is remarkably difficult to find a copy of  because very few libraries subscribe to it — good for them!).  It examines how to better trick smokers into believing that smokeless tobacco use is far more risky than it really is (the actual risk is, of course, too small to even detect), so that they are not inclined to try THR.  The authors do not really matter (their names, just for search purposes: Lucy Popova, Torsten B Neilands, Pamela M Ling); all you really need to know is that they are minions in the Glantz ANTZ colony at University of California, San Francisco.

So, they probably do not even understand that there is such a concept as lying.  In their world, you say whatever is most useful to get people to do what you want, and the fact that this manipulation might well kill them is of no greater consequence than the act of lying.  Yes, that’s right — this is an article that is openly about teaching people how to be more successful sociopaths.

They performed an experiment on people, showing them snus ads and then various anti-THR lies which they call “antismokeless tobacco ads”, basically admitting — through the use of the word “ads” — that their tobacco control enterprise is every bit as much an industry as the tobacco manufacturing business (though I give them no credit for accidental honesty).  The word they use for “lying” in the paper is “countermarketing”.

They natter on (without saying anything concrete — this is not a real scientific paper, of course) about their wonderful techniques for optimizing their propaganda (indeed, the experiment appears really to just be a window-dressing excuse for talking about their lie-development efforts), talking about effectiveness, focus groups, how they dissected Secret Evil Industry Documents; never once do they make any reference to whether one of their messages is true or not.  It apparently does not occur to them to care about such matters.  They might as well just note in the conflict-of-interest disclosure that they are not capable of conflict of interest because they are sociopaths who do not even understand the concept of ethical obligations.

In describing their “countermarketing”, they report that they:

emphasised similarities between all tobacco products in a straightforward, informational manner

Wait, which was it?  Were they straightforward and informational, or did they claim there all tobacco products are similar in important ways?  That journal could really use a literate editor who could recognize that an extended typo has rendered the sentence internally inconsistent.


pointed out tobacco industry attempts to ‘push smokeless gimmicks at smokers’

Yes, damn those tobacco companies for trying to get smokers to embrace the gimmick of switching to near-harmless products.  Gimmicks like that are a serious threat to the tobacco control industry’s business model, which depends on people continuing to smoke.  Keep smoking, dammit!

And then there was:

comparing smokers who used novel smokeless tobacco products to lab rats used by the tobacco industry to test their new products

Snus is so novel that it has been used for merely a few centuries, is the dominant form of tobacco use in only one medium-sized country, and is merely the second-most-studied tobacco product.  Just because its risks have been more precisely estimated than any other tobacco/nicotine product does not mean we know anything.  Geez, anyone exposing people to that might as well be brewing things at random in an organic chemistry lab and passing them out to drunk people at nightclubs, just to see what happens.  I mean, how dare that tobacco industry try to sell smokers something until we know more.  Until we know for sure whether it is 99.5% less harmful than smoking or merely 98% less harmful, it is far better to keep them smoking.

And, of course, the authors lied to their lab rats that snus causes oral cancer and implied that smoking does not, though the evidence actually supports the opposite claim.

What is worse, they performed their experiments on smokers and recently abstinent smokers who they judged to be at the highest risk for starting smoking again — i.e., the people who would benefit from learning the truth about snus, and thus were directly harmed by being in the experiment.  [UPDATE: In thinking about this more, it occurred to me that I had perhaps understated the importance of this observation.  This was not targeted at nonusers who might have considered trying snus, so they cannot even pretend to be “thinking of the children”.  This was a targeted effort specifically intended to figure out how to keep smokers from switching to snus.]

Remember (or be sure to learn, if you do not already know it) that Rodu and I showed that as of 2000 in the US, well before “snus”-branded products increased interest in THR, switching to smokeless tobacco was more likely to be successful than any other smoking cessation method.  Since 2000, the increase in smokeless tobacco use has closely matched the decline in smoking, suggesting that substitution has been the only thing moving smoking rates down.

So what did the authors of this “study” conclude?  Who cares, really?  They are liars to such an extent that they are voluntarily announcing that fact in a paper, so reading what they concluded is likely to only make us less knowledgable?  Besides, those methods for measuring people’s responses to stimuli like the anti-THR lies in this experiment are pretty close to junk science even when deployed by honest researchers.  People’s snap reaction to their first viewing of an advertisement or gory image has little impact on their views a short time later.  The only good news is that when the authors lie to their fellow ANTZ about the definitive implications of their research, they are mostly just wasting their own time (though they are still wasting taxpayers’ money).

Sometimes the anti-THR lie is just not mentioning THR

by Carl V Phillips

A recent highly touted op-ed in the NYT claimed to offer two ways to eliminate smoking in our society.  It was written by Richard A. Daynard, a law professor at Boston’s Northeastern University who is head of a “public health advocacy” institute.  If that bio leaves you expecting the content to be out of touch with science, ethics, human behavior, politics, and pretty much everything else someone needs to know to recommend policy, you will not be disappointed.

Daynard starts weak, by attributing a substantial amount of smoking reduction

to Dr. Koop’s antismoking crusade as surgeon general, from 1981 to 1989

In reality, of course, smoking steadily declined for over three decades, starting in the mid-1960s, due almost entirely to people’s decision to not smoke once they were educated about the risk (and such education was basically all anti-smoking consisted of during the most dramatic decline).  To the extent that any effort other than that basic education, which was universal by 1981, (and to a much smaller extent, price increases) had an impact beyond the trend caused by the education, it is really too small to estimate.  That does not stop Daynard from attributing the decline to every anti-smoking measure except the basic education and rational decisions by would-be smokers.

But this standard “public health” boilerplate was only window dressing.  He was clearly using Koop’s recent death as an excuse for publishing some pent-up madness he had sitting on his desk.  His real message was:

What we need is an all-out push to reduce smoking rates to well below 10 percent.

Notice the key noun in there: push.  This is not one of those pansy-ass academic lawyers like you might find across town among the Constitutional scholars at Harvard, who believes that Americans are a free people and who wants to help protect them from tyranny and abusive government.  Oh, no.  He believes that proper behavior of the rabble can only be achieved by government force.

One of his bright ideas is basically to just ban smoking (why did no one think of that before?):

no one born in or after 2000 can ever be sold cigarettes. Under such legislation…the vast majority of this cohort — the oldest are now 13 — would never begin smoking.

Of course.  Since everyone who starts smoking does so legally, dutifully waiting until they are 18 to light up, that should do it.  And since he tells us how this idea is supported by one guy in Singapore and political chatter in Tasmania, it must be a widely accepted good idea.

He does not actually argue that this would be wise.  He cannot.  Rather, his main basis for suggesting this is a claim that the FDA now has the authority to impose such a regulation.  Perhaps he does not realize that most governments have always had the authority to just ban smoking if they wanted to, for any age cohort.  I will not insult my readers by pointing out why not even Australia or Singapore has tried to exercise this authority.

At least the ban is just fantasy.  His other plan is potentially quite deadly:

The F.D.A. would be well within its authority to require nicotine content [of cigarettes] to be below addictive levels

This is nothing new, of course.  As Rodu recently noted, that idea traces to people who include the new head of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products, and it was always a terrible idea.  Most people smoke primarily to get nicotine.  Reduce the nicotine and they will smoke more.

FDA arguably has the authority to do all kinds of things to lower the quality of cigarettes.  Most of them would cause people to smoke less (so long as you are not worried about pesky details like people’s freedom to choose and inalienable right to pursue happiness — since Daynard seems to like Singapore’s and Australia’s way of doing things, I assume he is fine with that).  But he managed to pick the one way to lower quality that will probably cause more smoking.

Of course he probably does not know enough to understand that.  Missing from this entire missive (not surprisingly, given it is written by someone with “public health institute” in his title), is scientific analysis and evidence.  He does use the word “evidence” twice, but it is not clear he knows what it means.  Regarding what would happen if some locality started imposing draconian restrictions on cigarettes unilaterally:

evidence suggests that border-crossing and smuggling would be minimal

And if you believe that….  Well, if you believe that, you are probably a victim of ANTZ lies and apparently not able to actually understand the evidence.  His other misuse of that word is rather more interesting:

if the F.D.A. insisted on the [reduction in nicotine], and cigarettes ceased to be addictive, ample evidence shows that most smokers would quit or switch to less toxic nicotine products.

Wrong again.  It is undoubtedly true that this change would drive some to quit and many to switch.  But this is based on general knowledge about people, and not what would normally be called “ample evidence”.  There is obviously an absence of what is normally called evidence when we are talking about what would happen following an extreme change that has never been tried before.

What is interesting, though is the acknowledgment of alternative products.  The alternative products that would fill the gap — if someone actually tried to implement this rule, and it actually succeeded rather than leading to a popular revolution — would probably be e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco (assuming FDA did not try to ruin them first).  Some people who advocate THR favor efforts to push smokers into switching, while others believe they should be informed and encouraged, but left free to choose.

But Daynard says absolutely nothing more about the alternative products.  It seems rather unlikely that he actually understands THR, despite his claim of expertise about smoking cessation.  If he did, he would realize that the only evidence-based — and, indeed, proven — method for lowering smoking prevalence to that 10%, and the only conceivable way to do it without ruining a lot of people’s lives, is adoption of THR.  Instead, he proposes approaches that are based on wild speculation and that would seriously hurt a lot of people.  Despite his recognition of alternatives to smoking, his failure to even mention THR, along with the presentation of his radical alternatives to THR as if they were promising and practical, mean that his message is ultimately an anti-THR lie.

Zombies, clear colorful language, and scientific honesty (some observations by Krugman)

by Carl V Phillips

An aside (long, thanks to copious copy-and-paste, but breezy) before I get back to some recent Very Bad Lies that I have not covered.  As regular readers know, I consider Paul Krugman to be the day’s leading public intellectual, a top-level scientist with a clever wit, great writing style, and deep insight about many topics.  In particular, he is one of the most insightful analysts of public epistemology and rhetoric.  Catching up on weeks worth of blog posts, I thought there would be some value in recounting some of his observations on those topics that relate to this blog.  (Note that I will not try to explain the substantive background — you can trace that back through his posts if you want to learn the economic science and details of the policy fights — but focus on his assessment of public discourse itself.)

A few observations about types of lies:

He often talks about “zombie lies“, claims that…

remain part of what [every naive or politicized observer] knows to be true no matter how many times they have been shown to be false. Kill them, and they just keep shambling along.

…and a bit different

I’ve written several times about cockroach ideas in economics — ideas that you try to flush away, but keep coming back. (Are cockroach ideas the same as zombie ideas? Not quite, I would say; I think of cockroach ideas as misconceptions held because the people holding them are just unaware of basic facts, while zombie ideas are held by people who refuse to acknowledge contrary evidence).

Based on this, I would make the very rough observation that about 95% of anti-THR consists of cockroaches, engineered lies repeated by the tobacco control industry’s cadre of useful idiots because they actually believe them, and about 4.9% consists of zombie lies from people who know enough to know that what they are saying has been debunked, but pretend not to.  Oh, and the other 0.1% are lies too — just original ones that have not yet been debunked.  I know of no one who admits the truth about THR and then goes on to argue a reality-based position in opposition to it.

Some of the liars (in his world or ours) are definitely not unaware that their claims have been debunked.  There are influential people in the tobacco control industry who privately admit that they know they are lying about THR, but…

But they won’t change course; basically, they can’t, for careerist reasons. And that’s the story of a lot of what’s going on now.

Ralph Waldo Emerson understood this. The original version of his famous quote — I had forgotten this — reads:  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

I don’t know about the divines bit, but the little statesmen thing is completely accurate. Suppose George Osborne were to admit that austerity isn’t working. What, then, would be left of his claim to be qualified to do, well, anything? He has to stick it out until something turns up, no matter how many lives it destroys.

Krugman sums it all up similarly in the previously quoted post:

The amazing thing is the way men who know neither theory nor the history of previous crises are utterly convinced that they know what to do in our current crisis; and how their confidence in their prescriptions has been unaffected by the fact that they have been wrong about everything so far. Of course, what’s even more amazing is the fact that these men are actually running things.

Moving from the leaders to the useful idiots (though some of the powerful policy makers are actually just useful idiots), why are there so many of them?  One explanation is “affinity fraud“:

I never heard the term “affinity fraud” until the Bernie Madoff affair hit the news. But once you hear it, the concept is obvious: people are most easily conned when they’re getting their disinformation from someone who seems to be part of their tribe, one way or another.

On the question of science claims and the inevitable errors that will result when you are doing real science:

OK, first things first: back when the crisis started, I did expect to see deflation, Japanese style, if it went on for an extended period. I was wrong — and I did what you’re supposed to do (but far too people actually do) when they’re wrong, which is to look for an explanation of your error that is consistent with the available evidence.

Can anyone give me a single example of some member of the tobacco control industry who admitted they got something wrong and tried to figure out why?  Ok, ok, stop laughing.  We all know that they do not even recognize the possibility of incorrect science, because for them sciencey words are just political rhetoric.  What they make scientific claims, they are not actually related to truth-seeking, so it would not even occur to them that they need to respond to evidence that they were wrong.

One of Krugman’s best running observations, in my mind, is his condemnation of naive observers who insist that in any debate, both sides must have some legitimate points and that compromise is possible:

self-identified centrists are sounding crazier and crazier, as they try to reconcile their fanatical devotion to the proposition that both parties are equally at fault

Setting aside the political specifics his world, this certainly rings true about the world of THR.  Anti-THR liars would be in trouble, even given their cadre of paid and unpaid useful idiots, were it not for the fact that so many more people insisted on believing (based on nothing but naive trust) that they cannot be basing their entire position on lies.  If one side of a debate is honest, scientific, and appropriately self-examining and careful, while the other side refuses to recognize even the most basic truths and will say anything that they think supports their cause, and then someone seeks “compromise” or “honest reconciliation of the opposing views”, where does that leave them?  It leaves them living thoroughly in the land of lies.  Spit the difference between healthy and cancerous, and you merely have a smaller tumor.

Here is a little snippet, just for some of my UK libertarian friends who hate most everything about the EU and Westminster, and yet for some reason really hate Krugman’s criticism of their failed macroeconomic policies (who should really read this post).  Notice that he does agree with you about about what “conservatives” in government are up to these days:

As long as the spending ends up lining the right pockets, and the undeserving beneficiaries of public largess are politically connected corporations, conservatives with actual power seem to like Big Government just fine.

On the use of clear and vivid language:

Partly I use striking and sarcastic metaphors to break through the complacency of officials. But I also, more broadly, have an Orwellian purpose — as in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, which everyone should read.

There are many fine things in that Orwell essay, but the section that has influenced me most is the one in which he takes a famous passage from the King James Bible and renders it in official-speak. The original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

The rewritten version is

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

As Orwell said, the original isn’t just pithier and punchier; it contains vivid metaphors that convey the sense far better than just laying out the argument. Similarly, in reverse, rather than refer to

an economic view that has unfortunately retained considerable influence, possibly because it has a political appeal to some parties, despite extensive empirical evidence that appears to refute the proposition

why not just refer to it as a “zombie idea”? It’s not just shorter, it conveys the sense of what is happening much better — and it places the idea in question in the context of other zombie ideas.

Or as he put it more tersely:

Now, it’s true that I use picturesque language — but I do that for a reason. “Words ought to be a little wild”, said John Maynard Keynes, “for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.”

Skipping a bunch in that post about EU government cluelessness, he concludes:

And let’s be clear: this stuff matters. The European economy is in disastrous shape; so, increasingly, is the European political project. You might think that eurocrats would worry mainly about that reality; instead, they’re focused on defending their dignity from sharp-tongued economists.

Hmm, sounds a lot like the EU health ministry.

And finally, the crowning observation he finished that post about Orwell with:

Now, of course, some people get offended when you refer to their ideas as zombies. But if you’re worried about giving offense, you should be an official spokesperson, not an independent commentator.

The myth of tobacco/nicotine’s uniqueness

by Carl V Phillips

Brad Rodu and I just finished an overview paper about THR (which we expect will appear in a journal fairly soon).  In it we mention that there are a few legitimate debates about THR that get very little coverage.  A few of us who work in THR do discuss these.  But since most of the discourse on THR is dominated by anti-THR lies, and thus most of the public “debate” is just attempts to debunk the blatant lies, it is very difficult to have a conversation about the genuine questions.

One of the legitimate debates is about whether low-risk tobacco/nicotine products should just be treated as normal consumer products, given that they are no more hazardous than many such products.  If not, where on the spectrum of product control should they should fall?  That spectrum ranges from normal consumer products that can affect health (like food or most items you can hold in your hand; there is quality-assurance regulation, but little more), to definitely dangerous but still easily obtained products (like basic medicines or ladders; to these we add warning labels and mandatory safety features), to substantially dangerous but legal products (like cigarettes or cars: to which we add substantial restrictions and other regulations), and on to restricted products (like prescription-only or banned drugs).

(Note:  There is a case to be made that those items on this list that can hurt others, like cars, are the only ones that should be subject to anything other than quality control and warnings.  The argument is that people should be free to make their own decisions about accepting their own risk, and so only those products with clear external risks should be actively controlled.  I am not trying to address this normative question here, and am simply working from the reality on the ground that some products are regulated to protect people from themselves.)

Two articles in today’s New York Times very nicely illustrate this question.  The first concerns an “energy drink” company that is being sued over the death of a teenager who died of heart failure after consuming the product.  The question at issue is apparently whether the caffeine in the drink caused her death.  As I have written about extensively at my EP-ology blog, the levels of caffeine in these drinks is no more than is available from coffee, and often is no more than the modest quantities in Coke or other popular sodas.  There are other active ingredients in the energy drinks (which are really stimulant drinks, though the sugar does provide energy too), but since the focus is always on the caffeine, I will stick with that for now.

The claim is that the caffeine triggered a fatal cardiac event.  But if smoke-free tobacco/nicotine really poses 1/100th the risk of smoking (or 1/200th or 1/50th, rather than zero risk), almost all the risk seems to come from the risk to the cardiovascular system of consuming a mild stimulant (this was the analysis of our 2006 analysis that is the source for the “99% less harmful” conventional wisdom).  The major concern is the accumulated long-term effect, though there might be the occasional triggering effect for serious conditions that were not caused by the consumption.  In the energy drink case, the teen is said to have had a structural heart defect that was a cause of her death, and this seems to be the defense in the lawsuit.  But this would not actually rule out that the stimulants in the drink also were a cause, triggering the event (in legal arguments there is often a notion that an outcome has only one cause; scientists, in epidemiology and other fields, recognize that every outcome has multiple causes).

But if it is the case that the caffeine sometimes does cause someone’s death — a dosage of caffeine that most of us frequently brew in our own kitchens and that you can buy pretty much anywhere that serves or sells food — how should we respond to that?  Ok, forget that and just answer the much easier question:  How do we respond to that?  The answer, of course, is that we allow it, without restrictions on age or anything else.  And, of course, as I and others have often pointed out, smoke-free nicotine is pretty similar to caffeine.

If the energy drink maker wins their case, I really hope the defense includes the observation that if the caffeine was really a cause, the poor kid was doomed.  That is, even if the energy drink had been unavailable, she would have eventually gone to Starbucks.  If they lose their case, it will be a legal ruling that caffeine kills via cardiovascular disease — very rarely — and it will be rather difficult to contrive a reason why nicotine should be treated any differently than this proven dangerous drug.

The second article is a commentary about the rather common use of the ADD drug Adderall as a stimulant and smart drug among college students.  The commentary is kind of silly, with its Reefer Madness story of one kid’s experience (as well as the suggestion that performance enhancement in school is somehow cheating, like doping in sports).  But it does effectively point out that this popular stimulant is not exactly the most benign drug in the world.

The story makes you wonder if those students would get most of the same benefit from the proven low-risk drug, nicotine.  The demonization of tobacco has been so effective that those kids probably think they are making the healthier choice by using a somewhat dangerous prescription drug.  In theory, it is illegal to acquire Adderall for the purpose the students are using it, whereas they could legally buy and use snus or e-cigarettes.  But the reality is that within the population discussed in the article, students of major universities in the Boston area, there are greater barriers to nicotine use than there are to Adderall use.

Perhaps the tobacco would not work as well as a smart drug and many who tried it would go back to Adderall.  But given what is happening, how can it possibly make sense to erect greater barriers to an almost harmless stimulant than there are for an amphetamine?

I am reminded of an observation by colleague from graduate school, as we hung out in our Boston-area basement office:  If using nicotine could be made harmless, no one doing intellectual work could afford to not consume it.  What neither he nor I knew at the time (though in fairness, it was still two years before Rodu’s seminal paper on the topic) was that nicotine was already available that had about the same risk profile as the coffee we were brewing at the time.  So instead, other sketchier attention aids and smart drugs were preferred in our circles.  And apparently they still are.

The popular myth that smoke-free products are as dangerous as smoking, so you might as well smoke, is obviously harmful to public health.  But there is also a good case to be made that the myth that nicotine is worse than other attention or intellect boosting drugs may be doing plenty of harm itself.