by Carl V Phillips
Continuing this series. In the previous post I made several references to the importance of anti-tobacco extremism among the anti-THR opinion leaders. It was impossible to avoid jumping ahead like that because extremism is the leading cause of anti-THR activism and lies, but I felt starting with it would distract from the origin story.
I coined “anti-tobacco extremist” as a technical term. Non-thinkers sometimes interpret it as name-calling, perhaps due to the degradation of the legitimate and descriptive word “extremist” (it is most often used — inaccurately — as a derogatory description of holy warriors). But it means what it says: those whose position is the most extreme one can take on an issue (or in the neighborhood of that). The thought experiment I devised for defining it was the answer to the question: “If you could magically change the world such that either (a) people could continue to enjoy the benefits of tobacco product use with absolutely no health risks or (b) all tobacco product use was eliminated, which would you choose?” Anyone who actually cared about humanity would obviously choose (a) — after all, what kind of person would pass up the chance to offer benefits without costs? As it turns out, a large portion of tobacco control opinion leaders would choose (b), making them anti-tobacco extremists. They do not want people to stop using tobacco products because they are concerned about the people; they want them to stop because they consider tobacco itself to be evil and any use to be a sin.
It is rather obvious why anti-tobacco extremism leads directly to anti-THR. If someone does not care about people’s health, let alone their welfare, but only about whether they are using any tobacco product, then quitting smoking by switching to a low-risk alternative does not represent success. There have been extremists throughout the history of tobacco use, long before the health effects were even understood, and they have been part of the mix since the dawn of the modern anti-smoking movement in the 1960s. But it was not always the case that they played a major role. Many of those who did the original research on smoking were current smokers themselves. One of the key bits of analysis associated with the first Surgeon General’s report on the subject was famously written on the label from a pack of Lucky Strikes because that is what the authors had available at the bar where they were drinking and smoking. As recently as the era I focused on in the previous post, extremists did not dominate tobacco control. They do now.
It is also easy to see why this position leads to anti-THR lies, because the more intelligent of the extremists realize their personal preference is not widely shared. I emphasized the distinction between opinion leaders and useful idiots in the first post. Most of the useful idiots, as well as the ignorant casual victims of anti-THR propaganda, would not support anti-THR if they knew the real goal was not concern for people’s well-being, but merely pique about their “immoral” behavior. They would certainly not support harming people’s health in support of that goal. So the opinion leaders need to cook up fake claims about non-existent risks, the chiiiiildren, gateways, and whatever else, in order to create the illusion that their position is based on something humane. They have done a very good job of that, and the useful idiots believe that anti-THR is really about those fake concerns.
Extremism of most sorts is characterized by ignoring normal tradeoffs among costs and benefits. In this case, the thought experiment incorporates an out-and-out ignoring of costs and benefits. But similar extremism at the personal level can be found in a vegetarian or Jew who will go hungry rather than eat a dish that contains few milligrams of oysters in the sauce, or someone who is so into recycling she will carry an empty bottle home to sort rather than putting it in the nearest trash bin. Such behavior is about purity, as defined personally or by a non-worldly belief system, not about worldly costs and benefits. That is just fine if such efforts make the actor herself happier despite the lack of worldly net benefits — it is like a hobby — and can even be seen as admirable commitment whether or not you have any sympathy for the particular practice. The problem comes when someone tries to enforce personal visions of purity on others.
Today’s tobacco control industry is the result of a small minority’s extremist pet peeve being transformed into a powerful special-interest political movement. It is similar to other political movements based such personal “moral” peeves, such as objecting to people engaging in particular sexual practices, using other relatively harmless drugs, etc. Basically any time you encounter the phrase “victimless crime”, you are seeing the results of such pet peeves being criminalized thanks to special-interest politics.
There is a political phenomenon known as capture, wherein a minority with the strongest feelings about a policy are the ones interested enough to take over government agencies and associated organizations. The classic story of capture is about businesses whose profits are affected by regulation, and thus work to influence the regulations for their benefit. The total social effect is often very negative, but each member of the public is hurt only a little bit, not enough to bother to become actively involved. (Thus the value of real public-interest advocacy groups.) But capture can also occur when a minority has some psychological damage that makes them care enough about their pet peeve to spend time trying to impose it on others. Over the last couple of decades, a few thousand extremist opinion leaders have captured most of the policy and communication apparatus related to tobacco (and with it, control over boatloads of money which ensures their continuing power).
Having laid that out, I need to circle back to complete the story, because there is a key part missing. You may have found yourself thinking, “Are these extremists really all so unconcerned about people’s welfare and health? Wouldn’t they at least prefer someone to practice THR rather than continue to smoke if those were the choices, even though they would prefer no tobacco use at all?” That is indeed fair, and many among anti-tobacco extremists do care about the consumers, at least a little bit (though not all: see the future post in this series about visceral hatred and tribalism). Indeed, there is the current phenomenon of a few pragmatic tobacco controllers supporting e-cigarettes as a cure for smoking, some of whom have become celebrated by vapers (arguably unwisely), even though they ultimately fit the definition of extremists. They still do not prefer a world full of happy tobacco product users — e.g., they often advocate for (unspecified, hypothetical) restrictions intended to lower the quality of e-cigarettes, so long as this would not make the products less effective for smoking cessation. Rather than genuinely believing in THR, they would choose (b) and force everyone to be abstinent if they could, but merely accept that this is not going to happen and so grudgingly seek to impose what they consider second-best.
Many extremists among the anti-THR opinion leaders do not accept that (b) is never going to happen. Still, you might ask, why do they not join the pragmatists, allowing THR to provide temporary benefits until they achieve their tobacco-free world? What would be the harm in that? The harm for them, which overwhelms whatever humane concerns they might have, is that THR is a fatal threat to their real goal. They are so intent on achieving a tobacco-free world that they are willing to pay a high price to get there. No, strike that — they are willing to force others to pay a high price to get there. (These people never make any personal sacrifices for their cause.) The biggest threat to their (hopeless and socially harmful) dream of creating a tobacco-free world is not smoking, but availability of and knowledge about low-risk tobacco products.
If people know they can enjoy the benefits of tobacco use without much risk, many will choose to use tobacco products, in contrast to a world where they all believe that any choice other than abstinence poses a serious health threat. Once the genie is out of the bottle, the “endgame” pipe dream is over, and so the those who remain intent on a tobacco-free world fight a desperate holding action against l0w-risk tobacco products, both their availability and knowledge that they are low risk. They will lose. I predict that by 2050, about half the population will be using tobacco products — almost all low-risk — in free countries where people can afford it. Despite the health risks from such usage being minimal, this is the greatest nightmare of those with the endgame fantasy.
To some extent, THR per se is collateral damage in this war. Some tobacco controllers have proposed laughable fantasies — ration cards, prescriptions, and the like — of how to push smokers to switch to low-risk alternatives while forbidding anyone else from using the products or learning about their favorable cost-benefit tradeoff. But given that most people live in reasonably free societies, and thus cannot be prevented from learning or even acquiring the products, this is clearly impossible. Thus the extremists can only stop — or, rather, delay — people from learning and using by vilifying the products at every turn, including opposing THR.
But make no mistake, it is not just collateral damage. The practice of THR itself, at least under circumstances where they are not physically controlling people’s choices and actions, is a threat to the extremists’ endgame goal. They oppose THR because they want smokers to keep smoking. Anyone who smokes has a good reason to become abstinent. Many smokers (as well as low-risk product users who have been tricked into believing the risk is high) struggle to become abstinent, as the extremists want. Knowledgeable low-risk product users have little reason to do so, and so most will not. THR supporters often try to persuade anti-THR activists by pointing out that their efforts will have the “unintended consequence” of keeping more people smoking. This might gain some traction with the useful idiots and so is worth trying, but when directed at opinion leaders it is based on a sadly mistaken premise. That outcome is not unintended. To the extremist opinion leaders, the fact that anti-THR lies and policies keep more people smoking is a feature, not a bug.
Summing this up, the narrative messaging I like to use is something along the lines of: “Most people who oppose THR are anti-tobacco extremists who are not really concerned about health, let alone happiness. Rather, for personal ‘moral’ reasons, they just want everyone to be abstinent from all tobacco products, even if they have very low costs and great benefits. To them, low-risk tobacco products are actually a much bigger problem than smoking. So long as most tobacco users smoke, they have a good reason to become abstinent because of the high health costs. But if they switch to a low-risk alternative, they have very little reason to quit, and thus are unlikely to do so. Thus, these extremists would prefer that people smoke rather than use a low risk alternative, because that allows them to hold out hope that someday everyone will quit.”
[Somewhat tangential postscript: I have a sinking feeling that some vapers reading this have been thinking “but e-cigarettes are not a tobacco product!!! and so should not be the target of anti-tobacco extremism.” I wish I did not have to explain this, but I suspect I probably do: That rhetoric only works if the extremists choose to agree with your distinction, but they — along with most everyone else — do not, and it seems rather unlikely that they will be persuaded based on how you personally prefer to categorize things. In addition, even if they accepted your terminology, their extremism would have to take the very odd form of vehemently wanting a world free of “tobacco products” but being just fine with functionally similar products that happen to have a different category name. It is not as if they defined themselves as anti-tobacco extremists and then formed their beliefs based on interpreting those words. And yet, interestingly, it turns out that not quite nobody meets these conditions. Most of the extremists who are pro-ecig have sought shelter in this highly dubious distinction, to try to preserve their self-image and/or political reputation as being anti-tobacco. However this is pretty clearly rationalization — their embrace of the terminology was caused by their policy views, not the other way around — and so does not suggest that arguing over terminology is a point of leverage for persuading others. Nor does it eliminate the other implications of their extremism.]