Tobacco Control Contradicts Itself With Attacks On Vaping

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

Tobacco controllers will say basically anything they think furthers the particular message they are delivering at the moment, without regard to accuracy. Being loquacious and dishonest is a tricky combination to pull off. It is not terribly difficult to stick with a single lie, taking it as a premise whenever you address the topic and following through its implications. But when you cover a wide variety of subtopics and each have their own collection of rhetoric, untruths and exaggerations, it is a recipe for contradictions. Contradictions in tobacco control claims are frequently noted, but it may not be obvious just how contradictory the three core pillars of their anti-vaping attacks are. Typically each pillar is presented separately and there is no internal contradiction. But sometimes, as with reports from the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, FDA position statements and other broad-ranging overviews, the contradictions exist within a single document.

The first pillar of the attacks is the notion that nicotine is so utterly captivating and inherently harmful that we cannot allow any possibility of teenagers or young adults trying it. A little bit of experimentation and someone becomes “addicted,” a word they never define (and no accepted definition of the word actually describes nicotine use) but it sounds really bad. This is the core basis for almost every attack on vaping.

This usually leads immediately to the second pillar of the attacks, the notion that flavors, glitz and marketing are what cause people to vape (or smoke or use other tobacco products). They need this claim to justify most of their tactics, which focus on these features. At first blush the two pillars seem to dovetail, but they are actually contradictory. If nicotine is such an appealing and captivating drug, then it sells itself. Cannabis has long been more popular than nicotine among adolescents in many Western populations, despite the lack of marketing or pretty packaging. Genuinely addictive drugs self-perpetuate their usage without sweet flavors or branding. If there were no marketing or pretty packages, and even no flavors other than the taste of PG or tobacco smoke, the total number of adolescents trying vaping or smoking would not diminish substantially. If the drug is really so captivating, then such experimentation would be enough to doom many of them.

To be sure, more modest claims, variations on these two pillars, are perfectly compatible. It would be possible to claim that vaping is eventually habit-forming (positing that this is accepted as unfortunate) and this happens a bit more if the products are more glitzy and tasty, so it is worth some measured effort to minimize that “bit more.” Not to suggest this claim is valid, but at least it would not be self-contradictory. Tobacco control’s over-the-top extreme versions of the two pillars contradict each other. It is suggested that flavors are the only reason teenagers vape, so should be banned, even as it is argued that the reason this is bad is because nicotine rapidly “rewires their brains” to make them addicted.

Similarly they insist that marketing, branding and promotion efforts must be banned because they “are effective in encouraging…current tobacco users to continue” (quoted from the above-linked WHO document). Nicotine has rewired their brains, but were it not for the ads and displays they would apparently forget to keep buying it. The attacks on marketing and promotion are part of the war on industry, which has little to do with consumers, but consumers are the excuse for it. For cigarettes, the attacks can cite the actual health effects as the reason for objecting to the products. But with vaping and other products that pose little or no health risk, they are forced to focus on over-the-top claims about “addiction.” These inherently contradict the claims they want to make about the effects of marketing.

With the introduction of the third pillar of attacks on vaping, the contradictions become completely unsustainable. All but the most openly extremist tobacco controllers agree (or pretend to agree) that it is good when someone chooses vaping if the alternative was smoking. A “public health” fanatic does not have to believe in personal choice or people’s rights to autonomy over their own bodies to endorse this. So long as they are true to their position that reducing risk is always best, they have to endorse that switching to vaping is good. This should put them in the position of actively endorsing vaping and other low risk alternatives, as well as opposing policies that make switching less likely. The third pillar, however, is that the anti-smoking methods they approve of — NRT and other pharmaceutical products, anti-tobacco warnings and education campaigns, taxation, sending people inspirational text messages, etc. — are so effective that product substitution is not necessary. Back in the day, anti-smokeless-tobacco messaging often explicitly said that encouraging substitution was not needed because everyone was just going to quit smoking by 2020. Though the claims have gotten a bit more measured, that is still the basic message.

But if nicotine is so captivating, or if marketing is so effective at motivating consumption, how can these methods get people to quit? Even setting aside the empirical evidence that they do not do so very often, the first two pillars effectively claim they cannot do so.

They claim marketing is powerful enough to keep people consuming, but not so powerful that it cannot be thwarted by plain packaging and text messages. In addition, corporate marketing somehow cannot get people to switch to low risk products, so it has no upside. Meanwhile, imposing huge taxes is good for smokers because it makes them quit, even though they are actually “addicted” victims of marketing that will keep them smoking, which means that the taxes really just compound their victimhood by impoverishing them. Also, consumers are really just misinformed about the risks of smoking, so a bit of education is also enough to get them to quit.

Once again, it is possible to reconcile more modest versions of these themes. For example, it could be claimed that people are making a normal consumption choice when they smoke but are not being perfectly rational; they put the risks out of their minds because it is easier to keep up their habit that way, and reminding them and making the habit less convenient will encourage a more rational choice. Or it could be argued that just quitting nicotine is not that big a deal, but it is unpleasant so we should make some (non-fanatical) effort to keep teenagers from doing that to their future adult selves. Again, these claims are not necessarily defensible, but they would be internally consistent. But those are not the claims.

Tobacco controllers have created a neat little package: We do not really have to worry about smokers who would like to switch to a low-risk substitute because they will just become abstinent thanks to our pressure and guidelines. At the same time, we should be terrified of the prospect of kids starting vaping, because they will be doomed to a lifetime of addiction. Oh, and the only reason any of this happens is because of marketing.

Tobacco controllers are so immersed in these contradictory claims that they simply do not notice them. Thus when they write an overview, whether a comprehensive policy document or just the ramblings typically found in introduction sections, they do not even pause to wonder if they are contradicting themselves. To some extent this is gaslighting. But the reason they get away with is because their target audience — themselves, their useful idiots, and their pet politicians — simply do not care whether there is any truth or logic behind their crusade.

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Carl V. Phillips



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