Discovered: the stupidest thing the tobacco control industry has ever said (fairly trivial)

by Carl V Phillips

If you are looking for an important post, read the previous one. Then read it again — I really think it is crucial. After that, you can share today’s discovery, of what may be the stupidest thing the tobacco control industry has ever written.

I am not talking about the worst claim or the most harmful — those would obviously be anti-THR lies, though I am not sure how you would pick one to put at the top of the list. I am not talking about other major lies that have distorted public policy and contributed to the Orwell-ization of our society, like the claims that smoking costs the government money or that moderate exposure to environmental tobacco smoke causes a measurable risk of disease. I do not even mean bald-faced statements whose falsehood is obvious to anyone who gives the a moment’s thought, like their claims that tobacco use has no benefits. No, I am talking about one of those moments when someone says something so stupid that you open your mouth to reply but are are overwhelmed and have no idea where to start, and so are frozen like an open-mouthed statue by the sheer enormity of the stupid.

That was my reaction to the statement that the tobacco industry profits $7000 for each death caused by smoking. This is based on $44 billion in profits and the rather implausible claim of 6.3 million deaths. The figure can be found in recent “news” headlines and is attributed to a website that fancies itself “The Tobacco Atlas” (I am not going to dignify it with a link.)

Um, yeeeah.

First off, their $44 billion is the just the reported net operating revenue of the six largest publicly traded companies in the sector. (Also, despite their obsession with the large publicly traded companies, they apparently think that PMI and Altria are the same company, but whatever.) This happens to exclude the world’s largest tobacco company, the government of China, and other major government tobacco monopolies, in addition to excluding countless smaller private companies. It also excludes growers, retailers, distributors, and others who profit from this market. Most notably, it excludes those players in the supply chain for legal tobacco products who profit more than all the others combined, the governments that sell the tax stamps. In other words, this number is just a small fraction of what they claim to be reporting. The other number is (supposedly) all deaths, not just those that might be attributed to the product supplied by those six companies. The mortality figure is, of course, calculated using the methodology, “whatever number tobacco controllers are making up this week”. It attributes almost 15% of annual adult deaths worldwide to smoking, which is only a bit lower than the portion of the population that smokes. Again: um, yeeeah.

In short, their reported figure is an arbitrary number divided by a made-up number from a different population.

But all of that pales compared to the really serious stupid. The jaw-dropping absurdity only really begins when we pretend that those two numbers are real measures of what they claim, and then create the headline-generating number by dividing one by the other.

Yes, those are both numbers. And so, yes, you can divide one into the other. But what would it possibly mean??? You could also calculate Google’s net revenue per paperclip consumed and compare it to FedEx’s. Or the net revenue per pound of neodymium consumed by Ikea and Toyota, but, well…[insert image of me frozen with my jaw dropped trying to figure out what to even say]. I assume the former in each duo dwarfs the latter. But I searched hard[*] and found nothing. We are somehow missing those crucial facts. Maybe the geniuses at “Tobacco Atlas” can do the calculations.

[*Note: I trust it is obvious that this is false.]

The final step that makes this championship-level stupid is their implication that something about this nonsensical number is supposed to bother people. They touted this number to the press. But why, exactly, is it supposed to bother us?

It is sadly low, of course, and ought have been much higher by now. (Indeed, it is falsely low by an order of magnitude or so because, as noted, the numerator is only a tiny fraction of the total net revenue and the denominator is an exaggeration, but set that aside.) If “public health” had encouraged a switch to low-risk alternatives rather than doing everything they could to prevent it, the denominator would be much lower. Imagine a miracle that lowered that figure to 1000; that would yield an impressive $44 million / death.[**] Or imagine there were only one death, increasing that to a whopping $44 billion / death. Now that would be impressive!

[**Note: Yes, I do understand that net revenue would also be different in that scenario. But I am trying to put myself in the little bitty brains of the people who do calculations like this, and they probably do not.]

Oh, wait, that would not be so impressive. My consultancy has never killed anyone, so my net revenue is $infinity per death, so I totally beat $44 billion. (Also, I never use paperclips and consume very little neodymium, so I kick all those other companies’ asses there too.) Indeed, I think it is safe to say that I have saved quite a few lives, making my ratio an even more impressive finite negative number. Hmm, would a finite negative ratio be more impressive to them? I am not sure, because I really have no idea what these people think is impressive.

The thing is, I get the impression they are not lamenting how low this number is, even though we should obviously hope that net social benefits from an activity are higher rather than lower. I kind of think that they are kind of trying to communicate that it is disturbing how high the revenue:death ratio is.

They note with alarm that it is up from $6000 the year before. If THR takes hold, it is going to skyrocket. (Should I add that to my list of explanations for why there is opposition to THR?) Alas, if the world’s economy would just stay in a depression, we could keep that number lower. Or maybe it was just insider talk, and what they are lamenting is their failure to make up ways to attribute more deaths to smoking fast enough to keep the ratio down.

Perhaps they believe that people are stupid enough to think the number is sort of a constant, and thus that the industry wants to increase the number of deaths in order to increase their profits by $7000 a pop. Maybe they are right. Anyone who is clueless enough to believe the rest of their propaganda might just believe that too.

I am almost tempted to write to them and ask them what exactly they are suggesting we are supposed to feel bad about when we see this number. Almost.

Anyway, I better move on because sitting here with my mouth hanging slack is making me drool.

On a more substantive note, the other “alarming” information the “Tobacco Atlas” people managed to get the press to report included lamenting the fact that girls are smoking more than boys in over 20 countries, which they say portends… well, something bad. I found this difficult to believe until I noticed that most of the countries they put in this category are flyspecks (once again this error — using “country” as a unit of analysis without any attention to the fact that size matters — is not exactly high on their list of innumeracies). The really notable country on that list is Sweden, where it is true because many girls and women continue to choose cigarettes while boys and men mostly choose snus instead. This is why men in Sweden have the lowest rate of “tobacco”-caused (which, within a rounding error, means cigarette-caused) deaths, for any population where smoking ever became popular. It is indeed a shame more girls do not choose snus. I searched for where they said that in the Tobacco Atlas but could not find it.

Finally the Tobacco Atlas people note the following:

Most regular smokers initiate smoking before 20 years of age.

That appears here (I will give them one link because I want to flag it). They sort of get credit for admitting an uncomfortable (for them) truth. Only sort of, though, because you have to read it between the lines: When someone who is trying to alarm you about how young something occurs says “most…before 20”, what they are really saying is “the median age is 19”. I actually find this a bit surprising as a worldwide statistic, though I do not doubt it (I just do not happen know the global numbers). But it appears to be about right for the USA right now. Notice how this contrasts with the claims by most “public health” people that smoking usually initiates in childhood.

That game is usually played by reporting “most smokers started when they were…” with the (probably valid) assumption that readers will not notice this describes the stock of smokers not the current flow. That is, people will read it as “the age at which most people start (present tense)” when it really is a weighted average of that — the actual number of interest — and the lower ages of initiation over the latter half of the 20th century.

The truth that initiation apparently now occurs mostly in adulthood is really a problem for some favorite bits of tobacco control rhetoric, so it is nice to see some of them actually admitting it and giving us something to point to (despite trying to bury it so that readers do not notice its implications). That was almost worth having to clean the drool out of my keyboard.


6 responses to “Discovered: the stupidest thing the tobacco control industry has ever said (fairly trivial)

  1. Excellent catches Carl! The wording and stats game are absolutely primary in antismoking promotion.

    Here’s another example that would at least contend for the “most stupid” title though: from p. 241 of TobakkoNacht:

    “Dr. Jill Baumgartner … conducted this study of 6,400 children aged eight to seventeen and found that boys regularly exposed to second¬hand smoke at home had an average systolic blood pressure reading 1.6 mmHg higher than those who had no such exposure. Virtually every headline on every news story I have seen focused on this finding. However, virtually every headline on every news story also ignored the fact that the study had a stronger and actually more significant finding: exposure to secondhand smoke at home seemed to lower the blood pressure in girls by 1.8 mmHg.

    Was that a meaningful drop? Should parents be arrested for child abuse if they refuse to blow healthy tobacco smoke into the faces of their little girls? Of course not. But the decrease observed in the girls was still larger than the increase observed in the boys and it was totally ignored in the headlines and in most of the news stories.”

    Heh, and the “stupidest comment” about that comes directly from Baumgartner herself as she “noted that the girls’ pressure reductions were also “a cause for alarm!”

    Anyone think that if it were found that an apple a day slightly lowered kids’ blood pressure that it would be called “a cause for alarm!”?

    – MJM

    • Carl V Phillips

      Yeah, that is a good one, though of a somewhat different genre. That would be an example of their endless series of calculated lies, saying something that would be (at least slightly) meaningful if it were true, even though it is patently false. I would call it evil rather than stupid. And it is easy to see why they would say it (not so easy to see why they thought it was even remotely ethical to do so, but that is not really their thing). The one recounted here defies even that explanation.

  2. Jack Listerio

    In reverse since TC groups collect tobacco tax money and MSA money calculate how much they make per fantasy death by their own model………

  3. As soon as I saw that equation (total ‘profit’ divided by deaths equals profit per death), I knew that there was something wrong because I have seen similar ‘non-sequiturs’ before. For example, total profit divided by number of employees equals profit per employee. Therefore, to get better profits, reduce employees, or, you could equally turn it the other way round – to get more profits, increase employees. In both cases, the conclusions are false. There simply is not sufficient information in the equation.
    Would the situation be different if there were trends? What if profit per employee was rising, would that mean greater productivity? If profit per employee was falling, would that mean that there are too many employees? Again, in both cases, I think that there is still not enough information.
    Is it not true that a lot of the studies which you talk about fall into these sorts of categories? One marvels at the ability of people like Grantz (sorry, Glantz) to pull the wool over the eyes of legislators and regulators by using equations such as the one you mention.
    (By the way, I still had to wait for your explanation before the penny dropped! Must be getting old)

  4. Pingback: Scary but Irrelevant Statistics | Bolton Smokers Club

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