by Carl V Phillips
Clive Bates has just published an excellent analysis of tobacco control’s “endgame” fantasies, specifically about a special issue on the topic in the journal entitled Tobacco Control (at least they were honest enough to give the journal a title that says “this is all about supporting a special-interest political position rather than doing honest science”). I wanted to add a few additional thoughts to what he wrote. Bear with me through a few musings before I get to the substance evoked in the dramatic title.
Regular readers will know that I find this whole discussion funny from the start due to the “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means” factor. I have previously riffed on how “endgame”refers to a particular situation in a chess match, and that the current tobacco use and tobacco control situation does not remotely resemble that situation. Chess matches are divided into the opening (the part where you can play from a memorized script of good moves and responses, because the starting position is always the same), the endgame (when there are very few pieces left, pawns are very important, and kings are used offensively rather than just hiding, and even a moderately good player can work out exactly what will happen many moves in advance), and the middlegame (everything in between, when things are much more complicated).
“Endgame” does not mean “near the end of the game” or “how to win the game”. Most chess matches are won during the middlegame, with no endgame occurring. (I’ll even admit that I once managed to lose a tournament match while still well within the opening — I was never really dispositionally suited to play in tournaments.) Indeed, tobacco control people must dream of reaching a real endgame, where things will get simple enough that they can understand what is going on. The reality is that we have only recently left the opening phase when it comes to tobacco product use, and the tobacco control people discovered, “Hey, wait a minute, I don’t know how to play this game when my opponents are acting freely. I just memorized some opening scripts. Help!” In particular, they are discovering that their script — which goes: propagandize, vilify and punish all product users in any way you can think of, and assume you will get impunity for doing so — no longer works in the e-cigarette era.
This brings us back to Bates’s post, in which he catalogs the “endgame” proposals. Most of them consist of punishing tobacco product users even more, by forcing prices to rise or the quality of the products to be lowered. Bates points out both practical problems with these plans (black markets, and such) and the ethical dubiousness. By what right do the endgamers presume that imposing such force on free people is acceptable? We have no idea. They never say. Never. They just pretend that their tobacco control enterprise does not face major ethical challenges. They act as if they have divine mandate.
That brings up the Islamic State analogy. Bates invokes Islamic State’s anti-tobacco approach a couple of times. Now one might worry that bringing up the Islamic State in a political debate is 2015’s version of invoking Nazi Germany, which is almost guaranteed to hurt your credibility. But Bates pulls it off because it is a direct analogy. He points out that punishing people for choosing to use tobacco is exactly Islamic State’s approach, and it required horrifically harsh punishments, and yet they still could not make it work. Yet the endgamers are so out of touch with reality that they think this is a good approach. Indeed, Ruth Malone (editor of Tobacco Control) among others, took to Twitter to praise Islamic State for pursuing beheading-based anti-tobacco policies, and lamented when they backed off. When you start feeling all right about “this choice might kill you, so we must stop you from making it, even if we have to kill you ourselves to do so”, it is probably time to rethink your life’s work.
What struck me most about the endgame proposals, something made clear by Bates’s summary that I had not noticed before, is the purely supply-side approach. The Tobacco Control editors labeled a specific subset of proposals — those having to do with direct government takeover of parts of the production chain — as the supply side measures. But all the other proposals were also supply-side, with the exception of the wacky proposal to raise the age at which tobacco use is a criminal status offense (i.e., by making it a status offense not just for people who are minors, but for everyone born after, say, 2000 for the rest of their adult lives).
Bates notes this (and I will be so crass as to claim credit for suggesting that observation in a conversation we had a few hours before he posted his analysis). But I wanted to expand the point further. The fundamental problem with all of tobacco control — whether endgame fantasy or otherwise — is that its foundation includes the fundamental lie that demand for tobacco use is caused by supply, rather than supply being caused by demand. They have to do this or their entire enterprise collapses under the weight of the contradiction embodied in that “kill you ourselves” observation. Tobacco control tactics consist primarily of punishing (i.e., intentionally hurting) people — via taxes, place restrictions, social vilification, imposed shame, etc. — despite the professed goal of helping those same people. Islamic State’s position is at least cogent; if you believe that tobacco use is an affront to your god, then punishing people for it might make sense. There is no pretense that it is for their own good.
No doubt many people in tobacco control are motivated by basically the same view, though in most cases there is no divine prohibition in their worldview and it is more like “tobacco use is an affront to me, and I assume unto myself the status of god over these peons.” But they cannot admit that, of course. So they pretend — and many of their useful idiots actually believe — that demand is caused by supply and that punishing tobacco users hurts only those evil suppliers, and somehow does not hurt the consumer. By forcing themselves into the fiction that there is no demand, the endgamers ignore any demand-based solution like, oh I don’t know, maybe encouraging everyone to use low-risk products so that the downsides are eliminated while everyone remains happy. I guess the good news is if they had included a paper about a demand-side approach, it probably would have recommended imposing an anti-nicotine “vaccine” on all children, the ethical equivalent of genital mutilation.
Despite the absurd war on supply, the suppliers are doing quite well for themselves. That makes the endgamers rather jealous, and leads to what they call supply side approaches, which is their euphemism for government confiscation of the means of production. Bates does a nice job of questioning the legality and ethics of this, so I will not repeat those points. I will just add one observation: What would happen after governments acquire the lucrative tobacco product manufacturing and distribution businesses, especially if they put up the money to buy them rather than just taking them in defiance of every law and norm? The endgamers think that governments would then endeavor to destroy the value of their new asset. Um, yeah. I will delve further into that theme in another post within a day or two.
Approximately every single scene of a chess match in television or movies includes someone saying “Checkmate!”, which is funny because matches between halfway decent players do not include checkmate. If a checkmate move is possible, you see the threat and avoid it; if you cannot avoid it, you resign before it happens. (Ok, I’ll confess again: I was checkmated in tournament play. Twice. I never could concentrate in that environment.) But more often among decent players, you do not even reach that point, but rather realize there is no realistic chance you can win even though you cannot envision exactly how you would finally be finished off. That is when you resign. It seems safe to say that the e-cigarette phenomenon eliminated any remaining chance that tobacco control could end all tobacco product use. There is no realistic possibility there will be fewer tobacco/nicotine users in 2030 or 2050 than there are today. So the bigger issue than the details of their “endgame” fanfic is the question: when will those who write it figure out it is time to resign? Unfortunately, since they keep talking about how they will win, it is apparent they do they not know they have already lost. So they may just keep dragging out the misery they inflict on the world until that “Checkmate!” moment that is always scripted by fiction writers who do not understand how the game really works.