Tobacco Control Cares About The Industry, Not About You (Part 3)

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

The first two parts of this series explained that the leading motivation for tobacco control has become “try to interfere with anything any company does or wants to do.” Their core myth is that they are at war with an evil monolithic industry, whose every interest is diametrically opposed to what they call “public health.” Despite being obviously false at many levels, this is enshrined in the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which focuses intensely on rules to deny industry stakeholders a voice and to destroy their brand equity. The fact that such policies do not reduce smoking — and many of them undoubtedly increase it — is of no consequence. This is really about the industry, not consumers. Indeed, the FCTC is far less enthusiastic about the vague and stale policies it proposes for discouraging smoking and facilitating quitting.

Of course, tobacco control cannot just come out and say that anti-branding efforts, such as “plain packaging” and advertising and promotion bans, are really about reducing the profits of premium-brand manufacturers and have basically zero effect on overall consumption. They certainly cannot admit that the effect might actually be to increase consumption by driving down average prices and encouraging illicit markets. So they insist that these policies reduce consumption despite having no such evidence (obviously, since it is apparently false).

They do not, however, stop there. They actually take their myth the next logical step. The core of the myth is that industry’s interests are exactly the opposite of their own interests. What this really implies is wagging the dog: They are choosing their goals based on their (often very incorrect) understanding of industry’s interest. They cannot admit this, of course, either to themselves or the world. So they fill in the only other possibility that could result in diametrically opposed interests: Industry chooses all of their actions for the purpose of undermining tobacco control’s goals. It is hard to believe anyone would find that remotely plausible, yet it is indeed how they think.

For example, the WHO comically misattributes opposition to their de-branding efforts:

…this policy intervention is in some sense a victim of its own success. Because these warning labels feature graphic images that are effective in warning about the dangers of tobacco use, the tobacco industry regularly threatens countries with litigation against this type of warning label.

Coming from anyone who was not delusional, this could be written off as intentional political posturing. But it is clear from the immediate and larger contexts that they really believe this. The ostensible purposes of the packaging rules are to warn and reduce harmful consumption — never mind that gory graphics depicting rare-to-nonexistent health outcomes do not genuinely warn. Therefore their myth says that “the industry” is fighting these rules because they oppose those supposed goals. (In fact, the industry tends to support those goals far more than opposing them.)

In addition, tobacco control uses industry’s actions as “evidence” that the rules accomplish what they are supposed to. Even with unabashed cherrypicking, WHO cannot come up with any evidence that packaging rules affect knowledge, let alone consumption. They cite only studies showing that people sometimes merely notice the graphics and are briefly repulsed the first time they see them. But, in the minds of tobacco controllers, the only reason “the industry” fights a policy is because “it” believes the policy accomplishes its stated goal. The “reasoning” continues that if The Great and Powerful Industry believes something, then it must be true. Each bit of this sounds crazy — and it is — but taken together, it is an impressively consistent system of delusions.

The reality, as detailed in Part 2, is that companies oppose these policies because they diminish the brand equity of premium brands. The policies may change total consumption a tiny bit, one way or the other, but that is not something that companies care much about.

Similarly, the WHO claims that the promotion of low-risk alternatives to smoking is,

…to encourage those making a quit attempt to select products branded “lower risk” instead.

They offer no evidence that any marketing of low-risk products is aimed at those who were on their way to quitting entirely “instead.” The value of the products is, of course, to offer a way to eliminate the risk for those whose “quit attempt” is doomed, as most are, or who do not prefer to just become abstinent. (The WHO’s pretending that the products are not actually lower risk — that they are merely “branded ‘lower risk’” — is another laughable bit of their mythology, especially given that any such branding is usually forbidden. But that is beyond the present scope.) Again, the myth says that “the industry” only takes actions that are designed to oppose the goals of tobacco control. Tobacco control does not care much whether someone smokes or uses a low-risk product, so migrating committed consumers cannot be the real goal. It has to be something tobacco control would actively oppose, and the only apparent candidate is to prevent smokers from quitting completely.

Again, the reality is that the causation runs in the opposite direction: Tobacco control opposes product switching simply because “the industry” (i.e., some but not all companies) supports it.

Attributing the psychological properties of individual humans to the institution of tobacco control runs the risk of repeating tobacco control’s error of anthropomorphizing “the industry.” But it is difficult to ignore the parallels. People tend to form an opinion or take an action for gut-level reasons and then backfill a conscious rationalization for why it was a sensible and thought-based decision. Such behavior is clearly evident here at the institutional level. People suffer from the mirror image delusion, assuming that the motivations and choices of others are based on the same goals or worldview as one’s own. For tobacco control, the most obvious such behavior is assuming that everyone else also casually lies and abuses evidence, despite most tobacco control opponents being extremely careful and honest. In this case, they are attributing their delusion of playing a zero-sum board game to their opponents.

These primitive mammalian thought processes need not happen at the level of an institution. It is a sign of a toxic process and poor leadership. Lacking any internal adult supervision, and hiding away from outside criticism, tobacco control policies and mythology developed via a toxic evolutionary process. The most extreme, paranoid, and combative ideas dominated the conversation, as they do with social media chatter, because they generate more excitement and interest. Carefully thinking through what policies might work in the long run, let alone analyzing whether they actually work, is just not as sexy as raging about enemies and demanding every knee-jerk action that someone brainstorms. So policy positions were defined based on the worst ravings of the lunatics. Then the more contemplative members of the cabal — instead of choosing the honorable option of walking away from what had become a rock-throwing mob — backfilled a mythology that lets non-lunatics live with the lunatic views.

Global tobacco control is basically a conspiracy theory chat group with a multi-billion dollar budget. It is remarkably similar to the process of paranoia and insularity that creates the worst oppressive governments. Every setback, criticism, and apparent flaw in the plan is taken as evidence that the shadowy enemy conspiracy runs even deeper. The response can only be even more paranoia and confrontation. Defining policies based entirely on what industry dislikes is the most obvious manifestation of this, but there are others once you think to look for them. As with conspiracy-minded subcultures that do not genuinely care about the topics of their conspiracies (real human trafficking; how the “deep state” really manipulates perceptions), tobacco control has become entirely focused on their war, a war that only they are fighting. The goal of their forebears, genuinely improving public health and welfare, is just too tedious to deal with. It requires a level of rationality that the institution of tobacco control has lost and will never get back.

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Carl V. Phillips

Contributor

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