Tobacco Control Cares About The Industry, Not About You (Part 1)

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

[The role of Dr. Phillips at The Daily Vaper has transitioned from “news analyst / reporter” to “columnist / news analyst.” This column is the first in a series of big-picture overviews of the Tobacco Wars and what they mean for vaping.]

The apparent uptick in UK smoking following the implementation of “plain” (i.e., de-branded) packaging has produced a spate of pieces about how the policy “failed.” I previously reported how this “plain packaging” policy, along with recent attacks on e-liquid packaging and similar policies, are not really about reducing consumption. They are about reducing industry profits, even if that means increasing consumption. That was met with some incredulous comments, and it is easy to understand why. That goal is contrary to most public rhetoric and it seems utterly absurd that anyone would pursue it. Nevertheless, tobacco control’s emphasis on harming industry, above all else, is their dirty little open secret.

It is not necessary to engage in tobacco control tactics — dredging through documents to cherrypick out-of-context remarks by random middle-managers — to support this observation. It is right there in tobacco control’s preeminent long-form mission statement, the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. The FCTC is technically an international treaty, sponsored by the World Health Organization, though it functions as more of an umbrella NGO. It holds meetings and produces reams of position statements, taking advantage of its official status to have even more lobbying influence than its bloated funding alone creates. The US participates, like almost every country in the world, though is not technically a party to the treaty because we have steeper requirements than most countries before entering into a treaty (the Bush administration signed it, but the Senate never ratified and probably never will). This does not matter much, however, because it is not a real treaty. No legitimate court would treat its ever-wandering goalposts and vague policy admonitions as actual laws of the land. Very few countries come anywhere close to complying with what the WHO declare to be their “treaty obligations.”

However, amidst the vague and floundering discussions of imposing (ineffective) methods for discouraging tobacco use and providing (ineffective) methods for cessation, a few concrete rules leap off the pages. These are not the parts about consumers or even about products; they are about everything the industry does other than making and selling products. Tobacco product manufacturers are supposed to be prohibited from engaging in any advertising, marketing, or promotional activities. This includes every last activity that might reflect well on the companies, such as setting up a scholarship fund or organizing a tree planting. The rules about package labeling (faux-“warning” labels, plain packages and such) are also quite specific. Then there is the notorious Article 5.3, which technically just prohibits industry from being a direct participant in government anti-tobacco efforts, but is intentionally misinterpreted as demanding that the industry not be allowed to say or do anything in the policy arena.

Article 5.3 declares that tobacco control is in “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict” with the industry. This ideological myth is the tail that wags the dog of most tobacco control policy. The FCTC actually phrases this to suggest that the industry chooses its actions because they conflict with “public health,” which subtly makes it even more pernicious (the focus of Part 3 of this column). Tobacco controllers devote enormous energy to worrying about supposed secret machinations of the industry. They treat the industry as some kind of omnipotent supervillain or fairy-tale archetype (a topic of a future article in this series). If you type “fctc a” into a Google search box, the first suggestion is Article 5.3, ahead of “address” and “articles”. Article 11, about packaging rules is next most popular, and only then comes the first actual anti-consumption policy (Article 6, about imposing taxes).

The most immediate problem is that “the industry” is not some monolithic actor. It is a collection of companies who are in competition with one another, within and across categories. Any company who makes a tobacco product is, ipso facto, part of “the industry,” whether it is a giant cigarette maker or a vape shop. It is silly to even speak of the interests of “the industry” as if these companies had a single interest.

But the practical problems are created by the “irreconcilable conflict” language. As over-the-top as that phrase is, it understates the usual interpretation by WHO and other tobacco controllers. They see it as meaning diametrically opposed interests, which is even crazier. Real-life is complicated, so they have reduced it to a simple zero-sum two-player board game. They attack anything that “the industry” does or wants because, by assumption, it must be opposed to the interests of “public health” (as tobacco controllers cynically define it, which means their special-interest political goals).

The mindset is that every industry action was motivated by trying to harm their interests. If “the industry” promotes low-risk products to smokers, it is only a trick to keep those who were about to quit altogether from doing so. If “the industry” (i.e., one civic-minded company) engages in a “corporate social responsibility” activity, it is a clever plot that will derail the next planned tobacco control policy. If a company is allowed to sponsor a conference or a event (to say nothing of independent research), it is a plan to undo the effects of all the carefully crafted advertising bans. If Philip Morris issued a statement of concern about an asteroid heading toward Earth, it must be plot to keep people smoking and WHO et al. would quickly issue pro-asteroid pronouncements.

Obviously that last one is just the logical extension of this myth of diametrically opposed interests. But the others are not hypotheticals. They are paraphrases of WHO’s own statement in their most recent report about the implementation of the FCTC. Indeed, the asteroid story is not much more absurd than what really happens. Earlier this month, the Dutch tobacco control authorities pulled out of working groups on product standards and other technical issues because the process includes industry representatives. Companies alone have the necessary technical expertise, but wanted to be part of a multilateral process. But because industry wanted this, it must be bad and so tobacco controllers must instead […checks notes…] leave the process entirely in the hands of industry. The head of the FCTC Secretariat quickly praised the Dutch action.

In mathematics or formal logic, if you add a false statement to your list of input assumptions, you can trivially “prove” any claim, whether it is true or false. The mythology of opposed interests surrounding Article 5.3 is not quite that extreme in its implications, but it is remarkably close. Part 2 will look at the some of the poorly-chosen policies that result from the myths.

Read Part 2 of this column here

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