Banning Flavors: The Core Argument Is Based On Gaslighting, Not Evidence

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

There are a host of good arguments against proposals to ban flavors in e-liquids and other low-risk tobacco products. The bans are always predicated on the notion that the targeted flavors are “kid friendly,” designed to attract underage consumers. Among the many valid responses are: adults like flavors too and it is nothing short of defamatory to suggest that the purpose of flavors is to attract children; it is already illegal for children to buy the products; and flavors that are very different from the taste of smoking make it easier for many smokers to switch and stay switched. But usually overlooked in these debates is the fundamental flaw with the core claim: there is simply no reason to believe that banning flavors will reduce underage use.

All of the evidence that supposedly shows flavor bans will cause kids to not vape is actually just about preference ordering. It merely shows that many kids (and adults) prefer particular flavors or flavor categories. Everyone is going to have a favorite; thus, observing what it is tells us nothing. It does not show they have a strong preference for their choices (to the extent that anyone attempts to measure that — which is extremely difficult — that claim is not supported). It certainly does not show that the absence of the preferred flavors would affect consumption.

The faulty logic behind the tobacco controllers’ claim is this: If certain people choose version X of a product among the options, then if it were not available many of them would not consume the product at all. The unstated assumption is that their preference ordering is: 1) This particular version of the product; 2) Not using the product; 3) Other versions of the product.

It sounds crazy when presented like that, because it is. By their logic, if someone’s favorite pizza place closed, he would be likely to give up pizza. If the iPhone 8 had not been created, then many who currently prefer that model would not be using mobile phones. Anything that lowers the quality of a product will tip a (very) few people who are right on the cusp from being slightly inclined to consume the category to slightly disinclined. But not many.

Tobacco controllers do not make that trivial claim about tipping a few people, but rather boldly assert something along the lines of “a large portion of children who vape will quit (or never start for future cohorts) if we ban the flavors they most often choose.” This, like most tobacco control claims about what their policies will do, is obviously false. But their obviously false policy claims face far too little pushback.

Tobacco control is all about prohibition. The tobacco control playbook is very simple: Impose any ban that political circumstances allow. It does not matter if a ban has no prospect of achieving its stated goal or of improving health, or even that is apparently harmful, because it is a step toward prohibition. They ban smoking rooms in pubs, not because it protects anyone’s health, but because they can — never mind that it actually increases children’s exposure to smoke in the home. They banned snus in Europe and e-cigarettes in many countries not because that created any health or other benefits (quite the opposite), but because it was possible when few people used the products and would fight the ban. They ban flavors by pretending it is about underage vaping but do not actually care whether it will affect underage vaping.

Tobacco controllers are never embarrassed when a ban or other policy fails to produce the promised outcomes. Indeed, they do not consider it a failure because it increases their influence, expands the Overton window, and ratchets one step closer to prohibition. They do not care that the promised benefits did not happen. They will pretend they did, despite this being obviously false, and pretending is fine with them because those were not the real goals.

This is critical to keep in mind when replying to tobacco control claims. Dealing with honest advocates in a normal policy realm, it is reasonable to assume they have figured out that their proposals have a decent chance of advancing the stated goals. You might then argue that the cost is too high (discouraging adults from switching) and that there are less costly ways to pursue that goal (enforcing underage sales bans). You might argue that the goal is poorly chosen in the first place (vaping is displacing smoking among teenagers, so why discourage it?). But it might never occur to you to dig into the evidence and check whether there is the slightest reason to believe that the policy might further the goal at all. It is natural to trust that the proponents determined that before advocating for the policy.

This is not true for tobacco control, but they take advantage of that trust (one of the many ways in which they abuse and thus damage social norms). It is always worth digging clear down to the premise of the policy to see if there is any reason to expect it will further its goal.

Tobacco controllers were “post-truth” before post-truth was cool. Post-truth is not just about lying, but about gaslighting — causing people to systematically doubt what they can easily observe and thus paving the way to create a false “reality.” We all know that someone’s pizza eating would not end if one favorite restaurant, or ten, were closed. But tobacco control has managed to trick people into doubting that. Similarly, we know that if all existing policies had accomplished what they pretended they accomplished, we would have universal abstinence by now. It is gaslighting that lets them get away with simultaneously claiming that their policy recommendations are valid (and that their program analyses of past policies showed they worked), and that their new policies are still need.

Expert observers of tobacco control have gotten pretty good at avoiding the gaslighting on the science side. No matter what they pretend their latest study shows, we are not going to doubt our knowledge that it is implausible that banning smoking in bars could reduce heart attacks in a population by 40 percent, or that it is extremely unlikely that vaping is 5 percent as harmful as smoking, or that smokeless tobacco causes no measurable health risks. But many experts still get gaslighted about policy proposals. They still assume tobacco control would not be suggesting a policy if there was literally no reason to believe it would work, despite having the knowledge and intuition to know there is no reason. It is fine, of course, to offer all the affirmative arguments against a policy proposal. But the first line of response in cases like the flavor ban or the denicotinization of cigarettes should always be, “It is difficult to believe this would accomplish the stated goal, and tobacco controllers have produced no remotely plausible reason to believe it would. It is also difficult to believe they genuinely believe it will work, so they are apparently lying about their real goal.”

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