Tag Archives: misplaced trust

Real implications of the RSPH “sting” of ecig vendors

by Carl V Phillips

So apparently there is a UK organization known as the Royal Society of Public Health which presumably had some importance back when the East India Company was not just a retail brand. And apparently they did some secret shopper research of vape stores for purposes of generating publicity for themselves (like a retail brand would). The main payload was the breathless observation that half the shops did not interrogate the customer about their smoking status before selling e-cigarette products to them, and that most of the rest did not refuse to sell upon learning the faux-customer was playing the role of a nonsmoker. The RSPH then portrayed this as a violation of a largely-nonexistent “code of conduct” and managed to get this non-story all over the press in the UK.

I write that so dismissively — about the organization and the research — for a reason. This was much ado about nothing (as Paul Barnes entitled his post about it, which you can read for more of the basic details; see also Clive Bates’s post in which he dismisses it as a “cheap publicity stunt”). But despite this just being a blast of silly throwaway junk — what we observers of the public health industry simply call “Friday” — blogs and Twitter just lit up about it.

Part of the heightened reaction, as compared to all the other bullshit press releases, can be explained by the strange British obsession with anything containing the word “Royal”. Partially it is because the core failure — the notion that legal retailers of a consumer good should be policing their adult customers to see if they were “the right kind of people” — is something everyone can spot the flaws in; it is not some arcane matter of sample selection bias or confounding. So, for example, we can observe that no retailer ever checks to make sure an adult customer is a smoker before selling her cigarettes. This also makes it particularly easy and fun to satirize. (Incidentally, if a retailer in the USA discriminated in the way RSPH demands, refusing to sell to a potential customer because of his nonsmoker status, there is a good chance it could be successfully sued.)

But I also think the widespread reaction to this silliness, even among those who recognized it was just a publicity stunt, reflects a gut-level feeling that there is something more nefarious here than the surface level reaction implies. Since I try to point out the forest that is hidden among the trees (or should I use the royal “amongst” today), I will point out three deeper issues here. As I often do, I am trying to make a case that just responding to attacks like this at the level of their specific merits, even when the response is that they have no merits at all, is a fail. It is a terrible strategy to treat research like this as if it were fundamentally legitimate but merely flawed, as if it exists in isolation, and as if it were the work of decent ethical people who merely erred. That remains true no matter how effectively you eviscerate it on the surface. Continue reading