Monthly Archives: April 2013

This is what anti-THR networking looks like (and a bit more on ACS)

Yesterday, the CASAA leadership had the enormous displeasure to listen to a webcast about state and local regulation of e-cigarettes, hosted by the Tobacco Control Network (we listened so you did not have to – you’re welcome).

Actually we almost did not get to listen to it: every one of us was bounced off the call except one of us who registered using a non-CASAA affiliation.  We are assuming that was totally a matter of coincidence and technical difficulty.  We certainly hope it was, because not letting us attend a CDC-sponsored public call would certainly be a no-no.  However, if it was intentional, it would not be out of character for the ANTZ, who consistently try to keep anyone who does not agree with them from even observing their meetings.  Also, the (lack of) ethics of such a move are not much different from using CDC funding to engage in what is basically an effort to lobby for state and local regulation; that is explicitly forbidden by law, but this CDC-funded webcast was definitely doing just that.

The reaction to this by CASAA was kind of interesting in itself.  The one of us (CVP) who has been dealing with ANTZ activism against THR for more than a decade (indeed, for more than a decade before the term “ANTZ” was even coined by CASAA) found it to be rather routine.  Others, who had come to THR only after e-cigarettes enabled them to quit smoking, offered quite a few comments that we will not repeat here (out of concern for the chiiiiildren).  One of the more printable comments was simply “do these people really get paid for this?”  (Answer: yes — your tax dollars at work.)

If we tried to respond to every detail, this broadcast would give us a month worth of Lies posts, so we are just going to hit a few highlights.  As a summary, most of the content, other than a few specific points that we will highlight, was an embarrassing primer about e-cigarettes (most any reader of this blog could have done it better), along with the usual attacks that this is all some industry plot and is all about the advertising.  The ANTZ’s guiding mythology makes it impossible to admit that people use e-cigarettes (or smoke or whatever) because they want to, and thus they have to concoct this crazy (as in: as certifiably out of touch with reality as believing your garden gnomes are talking you) story about how a smattering of e-cigarette ads controls people’s when they make one of their most important life choices.

Since the anti-e-cigarette people are basically just the anti-smoking people with no additional education, they of course used the same old ANTZ playbook:  They talked about the importance years-old ads that ran briefly in such consumer-manipulation powerhouses as Convenience Store News.  They talked trash about specific companies, quite a few of which no longer exist.  Our favorite was their breathless concern about one e-cigarette merchant using women mimicking the old “cigarette girls” to sell e-cigarettes in a casino, which they seemed to think would appeal to young people.  Yes, it appeals to all of those young people who remember cigarette girls from c.1970 and who were in the casino.

The speakers from Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (whose Orwellian name belies the fact that they were opposing rights for nonsmokers who want to use e-cigarettes instead, and who are really just anti-tobacco/nicotine extremists) took the lead on the ad hominem attack.  We were initially a bit disappointed to not be mentioned, because the first page of that presentation was devoted to business groups and think tanks.  They were obsessed about corporate connections and the e-cigarette industry’s new-found access to lobbying.  They singled out a few organizations, including ALEC (for those who do not know, a networking group that is described as either “pro-business” or “right-wing” depending on who you ask) who is such an important player that they might have penned two pro-THR and pro-e-cigarette missives (though only one comes to mind).  You could tell that what they really wanted to do was to complain that THR must be bad because, politically, people associated with the Republican Party tend to support it, but they probably did not want to threaten their CDC funding quite that aggressively.

(For those who might not know, e-cigarette users and THR supporters are pretty much randomly distributed across other political beliefs and affiliations, though they skew libertarian for obvious reasons.  By contrast, almost all of the attacks on THR in the US come from the “public health” political faction which is almost entirely affiliated with the Democrat Party — and which is starting to erode that party’s support — and thus for this particular issue, support of the public’s interest by politicians comes primarily from Republicans.)

CASAA did appear on the second page of ad hominem attacks, rather annoyingly in the context of RJR’s efforts to promote THR to politicians (something we are no happier about than the ANTZ are).  CASAA was identified as being Bill Godshall and Gregory Conley, though when mentioning those two they failed to acknowledge that it is they, and not the corporate lobbyists that they fixated on, who have done the most to protect e-cigarettes from anti-THR efforts.  Kudos to Greg for getting in their crosshairs; the rest of us are happy to toil in ANTZ anonymity.  Bill, however, works alongside us a lot but is independent of CASAA.  It is truly remarkable that the people who are chosen to be the experts who inform other ANTZ cannot even get that straight.  They are all about ad hominem attacks – because the science and true public opinion are not on their side – but they cannot even figure out who the hominems are.

They described CASAA as “theoretically a consumer advocacy organization”.  Cute, huh.  There was nothing presented to suggest that we are anything but that, of course, since it is an undeniable fact.  But by saying “theoretically”, they were able to insinuate it was not true without actually stating the lie they want to plant in the audience’s mind.  That remark was delivered by Bronson Frick and Cynthia Hallett, who theoretically have never even once hired a hooker for a threesome and then killed her and buried her in the basement.  See how that works?

(Oops.  So much for protecting all those chiiiildren who read this blog.)

The ad hominem attacks and emphasis on advertising really served to illustrate the question-begging circular “logic” that dominates the ANTZ approach.  It goes something like this:

Start with the assumption that e-cigarettes and THR are bad for the world and the public does not really like them.  Based on that, it is apparent that any company, advocacy group, or individual who acts out in support of the products or cause must be bad.  Having established that these people are bad, we will now tell you about their support THR and e-cigarettes.  With all those bad people supporting e-cigarettes and encouraging their use, it is obvious that they are bad for the world and that people only use them because they are being manipulated by bad people.  This proves our original point that e-cigarettes and THR are bad.

From the perspective of this blog, the biggest highlight of the presentation was a remarkable coincidence with the most recent two posts, which were about the American Cancer Society’s efforts to block regulations that would prevent sales of e-cigarettes to minors.  Joelle Lester from the Tobacco Control Legal Consortium informed the audience of what this blog already pointed out to our readers:  No action taken by a state or locality can weaken whatever action FDA or other federal regulators might take about e-cigarettes.  This was not a minor aside; it was pretty much the highlighted point of her talk, that everyone should be pursuing state and local restrictions without hesitation.

Readers will recall that the claim by ACS et al. was that they opposed bans on sales to minors because this would somehow undermine the pending FDA legislation.  We pointed out that this is obviously wrong, and that the ACS decision-makers undoubtedly know it.  Thus, the claim was a transparently false rationalization for hidden motives, which we went on to divine.  The presentation yesterday made it clear that not only is this obvious to anyone with even a casual understanding of US law, but that the group that is effectively the legal department for the US tobacco control industry is actively communicating that information.  Not a very clever rationalization for ACS to hide behind, then.

That is enough for today.  In the next post we will tell you about the highlight of that broadcast, a remarkable bit of honesty from a county health department that tried to restrict e-cigarette use, along with some of the other lowlights.

Why do the American Cancer Society et al. oppose regulations to prevent kids from using e-cigarettes?

by Carl V Phillips

The previous post, which pointed out that the American Cancer Society (and, as noted in a comment and the update, the American Lung Association and American Heart Association) is leading the fight against banning sales of e-cigarettes to minors, has probably generated more attention than any previous entry in this blog.  After spending time writing long analyses of scientific points, it is a bit disappointing that what was basically a transcript of testimony by an ACS representative — with some analysis — got far more attention.  (Oh, that reminds me, I forgot to h/t Julie Woessner for creating that transcript from the recording of the hearing.)

I am kidding about being disappointed (mostly), because I do understand the interest.  People who are supportive of THR — in particular, people’s whose health has been saved by e-cigarettes — naturally wonder about those who are trying to prevent people from using e-cigarettes: what they are doing, and why?  I realize that it must seem like quite the mystery to most readers.  In the previous post I hinted at the motives behind ACS’s testimony, which I will examine in more detail today.

The first thing to realize is that ACS’s effort to block regulations banning the sales of e-cigarettes to minors is a calculated strategy.  ACS is an almost-billion-dollar corporation, and like any such corporation, it is run by shrewd decision-makers who do not take actions like this by accident (big corporations do a lot of dumb things, but they do not do them by accident).  They are not some random activists writing crazy rants or trying to do silly things like ban smoking in movies.  Ms. Susan Roberts, who delivered the testimony in the previous post, may have known the real motives or she may have actually believed what she was saying — she might just be a useful idiot who actually thinks that banning sales to minors in Rhode Island would somehow derail the FDA’s research and regulations.  Either way, you can be sure that those who make decisions at ACS are not so naive.

Once we are confident that a decision was made deliberately by a sensible decision-maker, then it becomes possible to learn from it.  I have no inside information about their motives, but I have devoted a great deal of attention, both formal study and informal time-wasting (you will recall my presumably annoying foray into some details of chess a few days ago), to the question of what you can infer from the observed actions of rational actors.

Rhode Island was not the first time ACS has tried to block a ban on sales of e-cigarettes to minors, so this was not some local employee going rogue.  It is obvious that no one with the skills necessary to be a decision-maker at ACS would believe the vague rationalizations presented in that testimony.  Moreover, if those garbled transparently inaccurate rationalizations were the best they could come up with, it suggests that their real reasons are sufficiently unpalatable that they do not want to even come close to admitting them.

[UPDATE: We just happened to hear, a few days later, a leading ANTZ legal authority confirming that ACS’s stated claim — that a state law could interfere with FDA regulation — was wrong.  So this is not only obvious to anyone who understands regulation, but the message is being actively disseminated in ANTZ discussion.  This makes it even more implausible that ACS did not know that their rationalization was fiction.]

It is also implausible that ACS wants to ensure minors’ access to e-cigarettes because they believe that kids should be able to employ THR.  There is some merit to that position, though no one (literally no one, to my knowledge) actively supports it.  But we know, despite the fact that e-cigarettes reduce smoking and so reduce smokers’ cancer risk (and improve their lung and heart health), ACS and their allies (who claim to be anti-smoking, pro-lung health, pro-heart health, etc.) discourage THR in all forms, including the use of e-cigarettes.  The reasons for this goal are a complicated story in themselves, which I have addressed at some length previously.

They presumably even more vehemently oppose the use of e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco when they are used for reasons other than THR by long-term smokers.  It is not plausible, as vaguely claimed in the testimony, that they are waiting for further study in case they might change their mind and embrace THR for kids.  Given their active opposition to THR for adults, despite overwhelming evidence of its merits, it is impossible to imagine any study result that would cause that change of heart about THR for kids.  Thus it is impossible to believe that they anticipate such a possibility and so do not want to act.  Besides, if they eventually changed their minds and thought that minors should have access to THR, they know that they could probably get the sales bans reversed.

This really leaves only one apparent explanation that we can think of for the policy of trying to stop states from banning e-cigarette sales to minors:  The American Cancer Society and their allies prefer that more children use e-cigarettes because that would look bad for e-cigarettes.

It is fairly clear that their political faction is trying to bring about a ban or similar crippling restrictions on adult access to e-cigarettes.  But they and other ANTZ cannot have failed to notice that their goals are not shared by normal people (the vast majority who believe that public policies should support freedom, happiness, health, etc.).  When state or local proposals to restrict adult access to e-cigarettes are considered, we are able to mobilize people — most of whom have quit smoking by using e-cigarettes — to explain why this is a bad idea.  Almost every single time when the decision-makers are legislators or other representatives of the people, they hear this, understand its merits, and do not implement the restrictions.

Despite this general opposition to ACS et al.’s goal, they have a chance to achieve it if they can claim that banning or severely restricting availability is needed to protect the chiiiiiildren from this scourge.  But right now few minors are using e-cigarettes, and for most of them it is a passing lark.  If there are minor bans, then furthermore it can be pointed out that (a) there are existing laws that could be enforced to further reduce underage use and (b) those who are using are already violating the law so further regulations are unlikely to change much.  Under those circumstances it is pretty hard to justify severe restrictions on the freedom, happiness, and health of adults to ostensibly protect them.

But if children can legally buy e-cigarettes (and just a few merchants are willing to sell to them, even though most have a policy of refusing to do so even where it is legal) the number of underage users will increase and the arguments about just enforcing existing laws will not apply.  So it would be a reasonable plan to try to maximize the use of e-cigarettes by children in anticipation of using that prevalence as a tool in the ultimate fight for prohibition or semi-prohibition.

It might sound over-the-top to suggest that ACS et al. would sacrifice the children in pursuit of their real goals, but I have not thought of or heard any other explanation for the behavior that has been observed.  Besides, the real brains behind the ACS policy must know that a little dabbling with e-cigarettes does not pose any serious threat to the kids (especially when compared to the illegal products that can easily get and dabble instead).  So even though ACS’s useful idiots do not realize this, the leadership know that any harm from children’s use is quite minor.

This tactic is not particularly unusual; indeed, it is quite common and proven effective.  When you want to solve a problem (to them, the existence of THR products is a problem), but do not have the support to make it happen, it is often effective to intentionally make the problem worse in order to gain more support.  Can’t get the world to care about the oppression of your people?  March in the streets or sit down at lunch counters until you are arrested or battered or shot, and the world will eventually decide that something needs to be done.  Can’t get the complacent peasants to fight back against the occupying force or government that you believe is oppressing them?  Provoke those in power into acts of greater oppression and violence against the people to motivate the resistance.  The world has forgotten that you have been imprisoned without charges at Guantanamo for your entire adult life?  Go on a hunger strike.  Compared to those uses of this tactic, causing more kids to use e-cigarettes is pretty benign.

Those dramatic examples obviously involve greater sacrifice, but notice that in such cases those suffering the sacrifice are also (at least in the eyes of the actors) the ones who are already seriously suffering.  So causing more kids to use e-cigarettes is comparatively harmless, but would be a rather more cold and calculated application of this tactic.

Could I be wrong about my inferences here?  Of course.  But no alternative explanation for ACS’s actions is apparent.  And my analysis does pretty closely match the stated position (pdf) of ACS et al. on indoor smoking bans, of refusing to support “step in the right direction” regulations when they cannot get everything they want.  Of course, the official statement dresses it up nicer (and merely calls for not supporting, rather than actively torpedoing), but the unstated motive is the same:  If you let the world move more toward the state where normal people think that things are basically fine, then you cannot get them to support radical policies as the “only” alternative to the status quo.  This is basically the same as the assessment I reached before someone pointed out that document to me:  Intentionally make things worse (compared to a world where generally-supported regulations have been implemented) to try to manipulate the people into supporting much more radical steps than they would otherwise support.

If ACS (or their allies who have worked to prevent minor sales bans) offer CASAA an alternative explanation for their actions, one that does not include intentionally getting more kids to use e-cigarettes, I will let you know.  They had a chance in the Rhode Island testimony to give a plausible explanation for their position, but they chose to talk around it and make non-credible claims about their motives.  Their allies from Rhode Island have engaged in a Facebook conversation with us, but have said nothing of substance yet.  This blog has a standing offer to let anyone who is indicted here write a guest post to reply, so they could take advantage of that.  I know that the previous post was sent to them, and I am confident this one will be too (hint hint!), so if there is no such reply it will not be because they have a defensible alternative explanation but merely did not realize they needed to explain it.

The random ANTZ in academia and exclusively anti-tobacco and anti-THR organizations can easily get away with socially destructive behavior because they have engineered a situation where they only have each other to answer to.  ACS has a lot of support from other constituents and the general public.  I wonder how those supporters would react if they knew about this?

[UPDATE: another post about this here]

Who leads the fight against banning e-cigarette sales to minors? Guess again: it is the American Cancer Society

by Carl V. Phillips

In the U.S., some state-level regulations to prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under 18 years of age (the same age for legal purchases of cigarettes or smokeless tobacco) have been introduced, though not as many as you might expect, with even fewer passing.  This seems kind of odd, since no company or industry group opposes such restrictions (and many actively support them and even enforce them even when not legally required), nor does any consumer advocate.  That is not to say that there is no argument against the restriction — someone could argue that it is better that kids have easier access to e-cigarettes than they do to cigarettes, or that they should be no more regulated than similar products like coffee, “energy” drinks, or nutritional supplements, which kids can buy.  But whatever such arguments could be made, no one is making them.

So who is preventing universal adoption of bans on sales to minors, and what arguments are they making?  The opposition to such restrictions is led by the American Cancer Society and their anti-THR allies.  Yes, you read that right. Someone jumping into this discussion with no knowledge might not find that surprising: “The American Cancer Society opposes sales restrictions on e-cigarettes? Well that makes sense, since they are a great tool for reducing cancer risk.”  But, of course, they do not really care about reducing cancer risk in this case, and they lead the campaigns of regulation and disinformation to prevent adult smokers from switching to e-cigarettes.

What are they up to?  Well, let’s consider the testimony of the ACS representative at the recent hearings in Rhode Island (quoted in its entirety).  The bill under consideration would impose onerous restriction on e-cigarette merchants (not merely prohibiting sales to minors), and thus CASAA and those who share our concerns with preserving adult access to e-cigarettes oppose it.  But the stated focus is preventing children from buying them.

Good afternoon, Chairman.  I’m Susan Roberts.  I am the State Director of Governmental Relations and Advocacy for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.  And again, I want to reiterate what my former colleague [from an allied ANTZ group with a similar position] testified to, that we really appreciate that the chairman has taken a look at protecting our youth here in Rhode Island.

We do have some concerns about this bill, and we also recognize that you realize that this bill has an identity crisis.  It looks like a Trojan horse to us.  I mean, it is coming to us saying that it’s protecting youth, and, in fact, what it’s really doing is circumventing some things we didn’t really get into a little bit today:  FDA regulation of these products.

Um, how is that again?  FDA regulations of FDA-regulated products preempt state law.  There is no way a state law could circumvent FDA regulation of the products.  This is especially true because: (a) There is no FDA regulation right now to circumvent, other than general lab standards and regulation of the food-quality ingredients, nor will there be for quite some time.  (b) It is impossible to imagine that anything in a bill that imposed requirements on retailers and prohibits minors from purchasing — which is all this does — could circumvent anything FDA might ever do, even apart from the preemption issue.

So that is of great concern because right now, FDA is looking at these products to figure out how safe and effective they really are, and we want to wait.

Except that they are not.  They have not even asserted regulatory authority over these products (yet), and FDA itself certainly does not have the capacity to do such research even if they were ready to move.  FDA outsources research, usually to the manufacturers themselves.  You would think that ACS would know that.

It’s essential that we wait until we get guidance from FDA before we even put in any kind of ban for the products for youth.

*cough* Wait, did I mishear that?  The people who want regulators to aggressively act to restrict adult use of THR, based on various speculative claims about what might happen someday, think that a “go slow and wait for more information” is the right approach to restricting children’s access.  Exactly what do they think we might learn that would change our minds about acting.  It is not like there is any chance they would ever reach the conclusion, “based on new guidance, we think that kids should be allowed to buy e-cigarettes”.

And we would ask that you do that and work with the Department of Health when it comes time so that we can make sure that we define those products in the appropriate way, that we capture all of the products to keep those out of the hands of youth.

So, um, the worry is that the definition is not broad enough yet?  So the argument is “because there will be more and different products in the future we should not restrict any products now until we know what they all are”?  Actually that seems like a great idea.  If they were to offer the same argument for adult access, that is.  Maybe we should start quoting them on that:  “The American Cancer Society says that we should wait for further evolution of the e-cigarette market before any regulations are imposed.”

And not only that, since FDA has not had a chance to evaluate these products in full, you know, there’s also great concerns that these are in the hands of adults right now.  I can tell you in the back of the room, there were folks using these vapor products right here in the room, and my chest began to hurt, and my throat was hurting.  And I’m very sensitive to those things, and there were other folks in the room saying the same thing.  So we ask that you wait until FDA actually reviews these.

Ah, so there it is.  Ms. Roberts used her claims of psychosomatic reactions to a few people vaping (and presumably barely exhaling much vapor in order to be discreet) and her projections of her rather unique reactions onto others to try to hide the admission of ACS’s real motives:  We do not like preventing sales to minors because it might interfere with our goal of banning sales to adults.  I will write more about the implications of this tactic in a subsequent post, because it is quite significant.

There’s another thing in here that you had mentioned about youth access, and there’s some penalization of youth for products in here.  That’s no mistake by the industry.  They put that in.  They actually want to see youth penalized and not the retailer penalized for selling those products to youth.  And so it’s a long-term tactic of the industry.  We just want to make you aware of that.

Again, huh?  If they did not like the penalty for the kids themselves — a reasonable position — why did ACS call for rejection of the bill rather than a simple amendment?  Apparently she is trying to imply (lie) that the kids faced punishment while the merchants did not, which is very much not true.  As for the “industry” bogeyman, it is true that this is one of several e-cigarette bills secretly authored by R.J. Reynolds, which CASAA has opposed because they are designed to hurt sales channels (internet, e-cigarette specialty stores) that would compete with RJR’s own e-cigarettes, which would presumably be sold alongside their cigarettes.  But if ACS were honestly interested in supporting the minor sales ban (which is CASAA’s position) they would just try to get rid of the bit they did not like (which is what CASAA has been doing with these bills) rather than trying to scrap the whole thing.  The only apparent explanation is that this is just an excuse for their real goal, blocking the minor sales ban in order to use the lack of such bans as an excuse for prohibition.

And then the Clean Indoor Air, this could actually roll back Clean Indoor Air.  So there are several things in here, circumventing taxes, FDA.

I am just going to assume that passage was a burst of Tourette Syndrome, since it seems like just a bunch of random words that bore no relation to this bill about retail sales practices.

And one of the other things I just wanted to bring up when we talk about FDA.  So imagine for a moment Big Pharma, pharmacy industry, would come in and tell you, “Hey, we’ve got a drug that’s under review by FDA, but we’re asking you as a lawmaker to circumvent that altogether, and you determine what should happen.”  That’s just completely wrong.  FDA was put together by Congress.  They have the authority to do what they need to do to protect your constituency.

Yes, from the steel-trap minds of tobacco control:  Restricting sales to minors of a product that FDA does not regulate is exactly the same as violating federal law by allowing sales of a drug that is currently illegal to sell pending FDA approval.

And I know, Chairman Melo, you’ve done a great job in the past, and we really look forward to working with you in the future to help guide you, and we’ll serve as a resource.  People–you were asking what we’re doing to protect children from these products, we–once FDA gives us that guidance, I can assure you, sir, with you and with all of the others, we’ll work to protect the youth from these products.  So thank you so much.

I have no further questions for the witness.

[UPDATE: Julie Woessner points out that the role of “public health” groups blocking minor sales ban is not exclusive to ACS, but rather American Lung Association and American Heart Association have taken the same position (though perhaps not recently).  See her comment about Illinois in 2010 for interesting details.  I have added ALA and AHA to the tags for this post.]

Sorry, but Anna Gilmore is still lying about economics

by Carl V Phillips

Anna Gilmore, an anti-tobacco activist and “researcher” at the University of Bath (they must be so proud!) is primarily known for doing junk epidemiology but has also branched into junk economics.  (The definitive collection about her can be found at Chris Snowdon’s blog, running a search for her name.)  It is not entirely clear whether she is in the subset of lairs who know they are disseminating disinformation or the subset who claim to be experts but simply have no idea what they are doing.  My assessment, based on her previous foray into economics (see my analysis of it) is that while she seems to be intentionally misleading about epidemiology, in economics she probably never read so much as a first-semester textbook before writing her unintentional comedy.

Her new “contribution” is “Understanding tobacco industry pricing strategy
and whether it undermines tobacco tax policy: the example of the UK cigarette market, by Anna B. Gilmore, Behrooz Tavakoly, Gordon Taylor, Howard Reed, about the impact of cigarette tax increases on retail prices.  It was widely laughed at by commentators because the part of her press release that was usually highlighted in the news was that smokers react to price increases by shifting to cheaper products (that is, from premium brands to brands with lower wholesale, and thus after-tax, prices).  The observations were along the lines of “hey, look, Anna Gilmore seems to have learned basic economics!”  But she actually did not.

I do have to give credit to the health reporters on this one.  Not only did they emphasize the one simplistic observation that she got right, but some fixed her false claim “tobacco tax increases are the most effective means of reducing tobacco use” (by “tobacco” she means cigarettes, of course — the standard casual anti-THR lie is thrown in there), making it accurate with “one of the most effective”.  (Basic education about the risks from smoking is, by a huge margin, the most effective way to convince people to not smoke.  Taxes come in third, after promotion of harm reduction.)  Unfortunately, further down in the articles, most of the reporters went on to report her innumerate claims also.

The core of her innumeracy — failure to understand first-semester economics before trying to write about economics — is claiming that the setting new prices after a shock to the market (in this case, a new tax increase) is a matter of complicated volition rather than simple market forces.  She attributes manufacturers’ actions to various nefarious motives, which is perhaps just political lying, but probably is because neither she nor her coauthors understood what they were writing about (and did not stop to think that perhaps University of Bath has an economics department, and that any decent student in it, let alone any professor, could have explained it).

The key is the following observation :  When taxes are increased, the retail price of premium brands increases by more than the tax increase (i.e., there is a wholesale price increase also) while the price of low-end brands increases by less than the tax increase (i.e., there is a wholesale price reduction).  I am going to assume that this simple factual claim was true — not a foregone conclusion due to Gilmore’s history of publishing out-and-out false claims, but since it is exactly what an economist would predict it seems like a safe assumption.

To predict that the manufacturers would lower wholesale prices (i.e., eat some of the tax themselves) on the highly price-competitive cheaper brands is just a matter of applying the most common supply and demand curve analysis (see, e.g., Wikipedia).  When there is an increase in the cost of supply (a tax has exactly the same effect as, say, an increase the price of the tobacco leaf), it is shared between the consumer (higher prices) and supplier (prices not quite so much higher as to fully compensate for the cost increase).  Usually most of the cost is borne by the consumer, but typically not all of it.  Basic stuff.

[For those who want to delve a bit deeper:  The consumer pays most of the cost because the supply curve is much closer to horizontal than in the typical picture like the one in the link.  For those who want to delve even deeper, and to argue that long-run supply curves do not actually slope upward at all, despite the usual picture, it gets a bit more complicated.  We still observe that cost shocks are shared by consumer and supplier.  The easiest explanation is that in a highly price-competitive market, at least one supplier is going to have an upward-sloping short-run demand curve over the relevant range — because they have already invested the capital in their manufacturing and distribution capacity and so are better off lowering prices to somewhat offset the reduction in demand, just like in the standard graph.  If this is true for even one supplier in the competitive market, the others will also have to lower their prices or lose revenues to the cheaper competitor.]

The extra price increase on premium brands is even easier to explain.  The manufacturer of a premium brand has some “market power” because consumers have loyalty and will not switch to a competitor to save a few pennies (and there are relatively few competitors, so they are all doing it).  This lets the supplier charge more without losing so much business that the reduced quantity erases the increase in net revenues per unit.  The ultimate in market power is a monopoly; with no competitors at all, the only constraint on a monopolist’s prices is consumers reducing their consumption, and so they can command a lot of net revenue per unit.

What happens in a market power situation when there is a cost shock like a tax?  The consumer becomes less sensitive to any given increase in net revenue.  It is easy to see:  Imagine a good with a production cost of $1 that the manufacturer charge $1.20 for because that is the price that maximizes total net revenue; raising the price to $1.21 would drive more than 5% of the customers to cheaper competitors, and so the net effect would be a loss.  Now imagine a new tax of $1 on everyone, including the competitors.  A price rise to $2.20 maintains the old margin, but now an increase to $2.21 is a much smaller change in the base price, and so consumers will react less.  Less than 5% will be lost due to such an increase, but the impact on the supplier (making an additional 5% cent per unit) is still exactly the same, so the additional increase is a good idea.  So it is perfectly predictable that a tax increase would lead to an additional wholesale price increase.  (Note that the total net revenue of the supplier might still drop due to the reduced demand that the big price increase causes, but this does not affect how to optimize the situation as it is.)

Snowdon discovered that Gilmore’s close allies have been failing to understand this since at least 2008:

“The hypocrisy of the industry knows no bounds,” said Deborah Arnott, the director of Action on Smoking and Health. “While complaining bitterly about tax increases, these companies have been raising the price of cigarettes to fill their own coffers while hiding behind the screen of tax rises.”

Undoubtedly in the last five years, in response to such silly claims, someone explained the basic economics to them.  Of course manufacturers do not like tax increases — they decrease demand.  Of course they raise their prices (on premium brands) when there is such an increase — it only takes the two paragraphs above to explain why.  So perhaps the current claims are intentional disinformation rather than mere unforgivable ignorance after all.

It is hard to tell exactly what they want people to believe, since it is hard to be precise when arguing nonsense.  But they try to suggest that these simple predictable effects of supply and demand, observed in a market with multiple competitors who want to take business from each other, are some complicated unified plot to manipulate their customers.  Somehow every bit of it, both the competitive price decreases and the premium price increases, is part of a grand scheme to do something other than simply make as much profit as possible given the taxes and what consumers want.

Ah, to have the easy life of working in the tobacco control industry.  Archeology is made much easier if you just take the Jewish Bible as fact and do not have to bother with all of that pesky carbon dating and digging in the ground.  Economics is similarly easy if your bible lets you avoid bothering with all the theory and empirical evidence from economics.

So why did I cover this junk science about cigarettes in the anti-THR lies blog?  The answer is that basic economics offers the strongest arguments in favor of THR.  Therefore any attempt to mislead people about the basic economics, and to claim that the tobacco/nicotine market is somehow mysteriously different from markets for all other goods that consumers want, tends to aid the anti-THR agenda.  The main message of this analysis is that the market was working just like it does for any other consumer good, with price changes reflecting exactly the same profit-maximizing forces that we would expect in normal consumer markets for phones or almonds or coffee.

So long as we get the economics right, the case for THR is even stronger than the usual arguments that are based on health effects alone.  More about that soon when I widely release the paper that I am now circulating.

Aside

From one of the worlds of macroeconomics — which is almost entirely different from the subject of this blog in terms of political leanings and subject matter, but remarkably similar in terms of politics and basic science — comes this … Continue reading

Sunday Science Lesson: Science is hard to do right, easy to do wrong

by Carl V Phillips

A few days ago, I thought I would write about one particular bit of ANTZ junk epidemiology as an example of how easy it is for dishonest authors of epidemiology (some of my fellow epidemiologists resent them being called epidemiologists — a fair point) to cheat to get what results they want.  But the more I thought about it, and the more news that came in this week about an error in an influential economics paper, the more I realized I needed to go broader and start earlier than that.  So…

Once upon a time, there was a child taking a science class in school.  He thought he was learning science, but really he was forever stunting his intellectual growth and ability to really understand science.  Fortunately, he was an industrious and hard-working kid, so he still made it through medical school, but he still never learned how to understand how science works, nor even realize that he did not understand.  The end.  (Or maybe he could not handle the math in the mandatory pre-med science classes, which are generally no better than high school classes, and so went into health journalism instead, or maybe he always wanted to be a sociologist — doesn’t really matter.)

I am not talking about some backwater school teaching the Jewish creation myth as if it were science.  That meme is comparatively easy to rid oneself of.  I am talking about typical classes that supposedly teach someone science, but really teach only the results of scientific research (e.g., the causes of weather patterns; the laws of planetary motion; the way a seahorse reproduces) and analysis and do random bits of unstructured exploring of the physical world (e.g., cutting up dead critters).  When they do an “experiment” it is usually just a demonstration (e.g., making something that goes boom or changes colors in a beaker).  When they really do an experiment, it is so set-piece or targeted that it is easy to know exactly what is right (e.g., identifying a reagent using a set list of tests; measuring a pendulum’s motion to show it follows the Newtonian laws that it is supposed to follow).

The result of this mal-education is that most people do not realize how tricky, uncertain, and ugly actual scientific discovery and analysis is.  Indeed, they are taught exactly the opposite.  They do not realize that science is, well, as much art as science.  Instead, the teaching focuses on theories and trivia that are established beyond doubt, and so the dangerous subliminal message is that when you read a scientific result, it is Right.  If a historical example that was Wrong is ever mentioned (alchemy and leech therapy seems to be favorites), there is almost no insight offered into why it was convincing to many at the time, and its wrongness is just offered as an unintentionally ironic bit of support for the claim that we now get everything Right.

Even once you rise above those problems a bit, there is the further problem that physics is taught as if it were the representative science, when in reality it is quite different from most other sciences.  The small number of new discoveries in physics are carefully poured over by lots of people, are based on repeated observations to the extent possible, and are parsed against a lot of theory.  Even for the physics that requires bleeding edge technology, there is still a lot of replication, and it has long been thus (e.g., the Michelson-Morley experiment and its then-surprising result was aggressively refined and replicated).  Perhaps this is because physicists are just better scientists, but the field also has the advantage that the number of topics to explore is relatively limited, and so replication and thus embarrassment for claiming something that is never replicated are inevitable.

On the other hand, consider one classic bit of physics and imagine how it looked at the time and not in hindsight.  When Galileo peered through his telescope and identified moons orbiting Jupiter, parsing that with Copernicus’s theories, there were only a few telescopes powerful enough to see the moons and other people who looked through those instruments could not make out what Galileo claimed to see (almost, though not quite, everyone — there was actually a contemporary independent discovery).  His contribution to science relied on his scrupulousness and honesty because the claim was, for a while, entirely dependent on his work.  Had he claimed to see angels carrying signs that said “terra est centrum” (or whatever the right grammar is for “Earth is the center of the universe”), that might have remained the “evidence based” reality for a while longer.

So, to circle back to epidemiology (the quantitative analysis of health outcomes and exposures in people, both observational and experimental):  Doing epidemiology is trivial, thanks to plug-and-play software, but doing it right is extremely difficult.  A three-year-old can draw a picture and a first semester student can crank out some epidemiology statistics.  This characteristic is not what sets it apart from other sciences, however; a grade school student can do the physics experiment with the pendulum. The contrast appears because the drawing sees no gallery other than the family refrigerator and the pendulum data is graded and discarded, but the equivalent work in epidemiology becomes a “peer-reviewed publication”.

We rely on researchers to be expert in their science as a start, and then to be scrupulous and careful in their research, and to recognize uncertainty and to examine it to the extent possible and be epistemically modest because it exists.  But in epidemiology, almost none of what is published meets those standards.  But like cheap wine put in a fancy bottle, the average consumer of the science has no idea how much like the child’s drawing it really is.

But it is even worse than that.  Because the standards of the field are so weak, it is trivially easy to not just do bad science, but to do intentionally misleading “science”.  Epidemiology is made bad enough by the deluge of publications by inadequately competent authors, but it is made far worse by its hijacking by “public health” (the political movement, not to be confused with real public health scientists, including epidemiologists, who are at least trying to do good research).  There are oh so many ways to get the result you want by doing bad epidemiology.  Doing intentionally-misleading epidemiology is far easier than doing good epidemiology.

Sometimes it is incredibly obvious what someone has done, as with this example where “researchers” with obvious biases have picked which periods of data to consider to intentionally gin up the incredible claim that banning smoking in pubs results in measurable reductions in heart attacks.  There has been an enormous amount written about this junk science because the manipulations are so obvious — I just linked to the most recent such analysis.  But sometimes the manipulations are subtle enough that only a few experts notice them, as is the case with the series of publications from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden that claimed to find an association of snus use and various diseases.  In that case, they clearly fished for statistical models that would show the strongest association (and thus were biased upward from the true value), something that is almost impossible to spot (a bit more about this here and here).  This model fishing characterizes a large portion of epidemiology — even the bits that are not intentionally dishonest like these examples, but merely result from researchers not having enough expertise to even understand that this is bad science.

But, in all of these cases, the cheap wine is packaged up in the nice bottle, and so health reporters, policy makers, medics, and most everyone up just blindly lap it up.

So is this much different from, say, economics, the science that is most similar to epidemiology?  Or from toxicology, another “public health”-influenced science that some consider more sciencey because it takes place in a laboratory?  The answers, I would argue, are yes (economics shares many of the same problems, but has better mechanisms for fixing them) and no (toxicology is just as manipulated and misleading as epidemiology in practice).  But those points will have to wait for another Sunday.

More on “endgame”

by Carl V Phillips

A few days ago I mused about the recent issue of the fantasy zine, Tobacco Control, that was devoted to “visionaries” talking about how to bring about the elimination of smoking, or its health effects, or the industry, or all tobacco product use — they are not really clear about what they mean by “endgame”.  What is clear, as I noted, is that they did not choose their metaphor well:  The endgame is the phase in a chess match when everything gets smaller, simpler, and puzzle-like, whereas the world of tobacco — pretty static for decades in most populations — is far more populous and complicated than ever before.  Moreover, they tend to use the word to refer to what they perceive to be an inevitable victory, whereas an endgame is only played when victory is uncertain.

In the comments on that post, Chris Price pointed out how absurd the following claim from Ken Warner appears if you stop to think about it:

The continuing scourge of tobacco-produced disease is unlikely to yield to today’s evidence-based interventions.

I did not think about it until Chris pointed out how absurd it is, since it seems to translate into:

We can’t reduce disease with methods that are shown to work.

It certainly does read that way, doesn’t it?  Pretty funny.

Searching for some benefit of the doubt about the statement not being absurd, it might lie in the following.  Taking “yield” as its meaning of “surrender” rather than merely of “back off”, the statement is that the methods will not result in elimination of tobacco use, and thus the exercise in brainstorming to come up with new and creative methods of creeping prohibition.  There are several problems with the claim, even giving the benefit of the doubt about what it really means:

  1. It implies that some miraculous new method will cause people to stop engaging in consumption that they choose in spite of the heavy costs.  We can believe this because, um, it has worked so well for other drugs?  Warner is too good an economist to make this mistake.
  2. What has got to be, by any reasonable account, the second most effective evidenced based method — harm reduction — works remarkably well at eliminating smoking and disease.  Not 100% for either, but impressive nonetheless.  (First is basic education about the risks, that causes most people to rationally avoid the choice.  Third is taxes or other purchase price increases.  Every other intervention has effects that are down in the noise, and the evidence that supposedly shows they matters is largely a joke.)  THR was barely mentioned by the geniuses who were looking for ideas.
  3. The phrase “evidenced based”, when used in the tobacco control context, is inherently a joke.  They use that word to basically mean “someone in our industry ginned up something that kind of looks like science and asserted the conclusion that the intervention works”.  That is why they consider approximately useless pharmacological therapy and fiddling with the packaging to be “evidenced based” and THR to not be — because the overwhelming evidence about THR does not come from members of their industry (by definition: anyone who produces evidence that is not part of their prohibitionist agenda is ejected from their team).

In short, they are trying to identify wild new approaches to win the “endgame” that are not backed by any evidence because the evidence shows that every approach other than harm reduction has run its course.  And harm reduction, well, that just does not count because it is not their approach.  Tobacco improvement is not tobacco control; it leaves tobacco/nicotine users and manufacturers reasonably happy, and we cannot have that.

But the actual endgame is a time when you can think through every move.  In the middle game in chess, you can win with a wild “?!” move (the symbol for a “dubious move” — seemingly stupid, but perhaps a brilliant stroke), but in the end game, a bad move is a bad move.  And having no move at all, well…

trebuchet

Your move, tobacco control.

The other point that I made is that in the endgame, after most of the pieces are gone, it is mostly about the kings and pawns — the primary stakeholders and the grassroots, to torture the metaphor a bit more.  So add some grassroots and…

white to force zugzwang

Tobacco control wear the black hats, of course. White or black to move.

It looks like they have just as much grassroots support.  But the little differences like h6 — or, say, the difference between people who live THR or are motivated by wanting to help and those who are only motivated by ignorance and/or hatred — matter.

Postscript (to avoid limiting this post to the few people who are interested in both THR and endgame puzzles, and to either enlighten or bore those not in the second category — spoiler alert for those who want to think through the puzzle first):  The first graphic is the classic illustration of the “zugzwang” situation where someone has to move but any move loses (in this case, that is true no matter whose move it is).  The second graphic riffs on that combination with a contrived position where the winner will be whoever can make the last move with the pawns on the right, forcing the other to move his king.  No matter whose move it is, white can make the last pawn move thanks to the tiny difference in the starting positions.  However, it turns out that this puzzle was crafted with a flaw that the author did not intend, such that black can actually win by abandoning the standoff to the left and bringing the king across to attack the “grassroots” directly at just the right time.  With that cautionary observation, I promise to stop torturing this poor metaphor.

The ANTZ are scared of us!

Outsourcing today to Abby Olmstead writing about Ellen Hahn and company, lying and hiring security because they are so scared of the people they are supposedly trying to help.  As I have said before, if the people who you are supposedly trying to help despise you (and, in this case, frighten you), then you are probably doing it wrong.

Go read it.

Notice especially the part where the ANTZ are trying to take the sting out of “nanny” by trying to coopt it.  It won’t work.  Coopting a negative epithet works when you are a large cultural group and have inspirational leadership with the discipline to pull it off.  They fail on both counts.