How Low Will They Go? Discouraging Smokers From Switching

Carl V. Phillips | Contributor

Tobacco controllers like to pretend their opposition to vaping is all about kids and nonsmokers doing it. Most pay lip service to saying smokers switching is a good thing, but few really believe this. Their goal of total prohibition is far more threatened by low-risk products than by smoking, and so their political efforts try to discourage vaping by anyone. Tobacco controllers also like to debase the scientific publishing process, taking advantage of the trust that non-experts place in journal papers to use them for propaganda. These are both core tobacco control deceits. But they go lower still when they combine the two as they did in two recent papers.

An NCI- and FDA-funded study by Sijia Yang et al. at the University of Pennsylvania discovered how to use psychological tricks to get smokers to support placing restrictions on vaping (which, of course, make switching to vaping less appealing). It is actually a fairly interesting study at its core. Yang, a student, seems to have been attempting to do valid research on the effects of vapor product advertising, though he demonstrates a rather limited understanding of the regulations governing such advertising and of vaping itself. The reader gets the feeling that he was forced by his funders and professors to add the references to anti-vaping tactics.

The starting observation is that “educational” campaigns can sometimes backfire, just as anti-drug campaigns typically increase the allure of the drugs to teenagers. One need look no further than tobacco control’s inadvertent marketing of vapes to children for an example, one which is glaringly not mentioned in this paper. It is further observed that visual cues that evoke harmful actions provoke strong negative feelings even if there is verbal assurance — e.g., someone pointing a gun at a child, even if it is stated that it is a fake gun. Yang’s hypothesis is that smoke-like imagery, and perhaps even smoking-like imagery, in vapor product ads evokes concerns about environmental tobacco smoke, even if text or a voiceover says it is harmless vapor. (ETS is not actually measurably harmful, except for a few acute sensitivities, but most people have been convinced that it is.)

Smokers were shown visual-plus-verbal and verbal-only ads. Those seeing the verbal-only versions became substantially less concerned with risks from environmental vapor and less supportive of restrictions, while those seeing visual-plus-verbal ads did not move much in that direction from baseline. The hypothesis and results are interesting and plausible, though like all psychology research, it should be taken with a large grain of salt.

The paper goes low, however, in its references to policy. The results could have been presented as a caution to vapor product advertisers, and one gets the feeling that the researcher might have written it that way but for the need to attract future funding. Instead, the apparent effect of visuals in evoking pro-ban feelings — which is to say, making adult smokers less positive about vaping — is described as “inadvertently benefiting public health.” The subtext is, of course, that “public health” is not really about health (making vaping more appealing and thus reducing smoking), but about discouraging switching and imposing bans that make life less pleasant for all tobacco product users. The paper further suggests that visual imagery that evokes “moral” feelings about smoke could be actively used in propaganda to make smokers more anti-vaping. This is basically an endorsement of the “cloud” photographs that accompany so many anti-vaping pieces.

Another recent paper that goes far lower appeared in the junk science journal, Canadian Journal of Public Health. It reports not on any research, but rather an act of political vandalism by university-based activists. The authors describe how they endeavored to cause a vape convention to be cancelled, putting pressure on the venue to cancel it. A vape convention is, of course, a gathering of adults who already vape (approximately all ex-smokers) or are seriously considering vaping (approximately all current smokers), which is completely unseen by impressionable children. Shutting it down serves only to hurt vapers and interfere with efforts to encourage switching.

[Advocacy aside for Canadian readers: About five years ago, a professor in Kentucky, Ellen Hahn, did the same thing to shut down a vape convention there. In those efforts, she abused her university credentials for the purpose of political activism and intimidation, and I (in my role at CASAA at the time) gathered the details from the event organizers and filed a formal complaint with her university about it. While the university would not tell me what actions they took, Hahn — who was arguably the most visible anti-vaping activist in the country at the time — basically stopped doing activism (if you have never even heard of her, that is why). This might work in Canada also.]

It is obviously evil enough that the authors tried to shut down a convention. It is all the more appalling that they wanted to celebrate it, and that a public health “journal” published it as if it were research, structuring the paper as if it were reporting on an experiment. The reported “outcome” was that the venue broke the contract with the convention organizers, which the authors celebrate in their conclusions. Fortunately, the organizers found another venue to move it to. This led the tobacco controllers to lament about living in a free society and to suggest that future acts of intimidation try to “ensur[e] that events are not simply moved.”

Not every tobacco controller is so low that they would try to intimidate a third party in order to inconvenience vapers, nor so low that they would use psychological tricks to make smokers think vapor is a environmentally invasive as smoke. But many would. Most importantly, none of the others will speak out against such unethical behavior, even though it is contrary to the supposed goals of public health. When a political movement uncritically accepts such extremists in their ranks, they are all defined by those extremists and their lowness should be judged accordingly.

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