Of all the recent hot takes and suggestions made for reform of US tobacco policy, the award for the most useless has to go to Vox.
On August 1, just days after FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced a package of measures affecting e-cigarettes, cigars, and regular combustible cigarettes, Vox published an article explaining what tobacco policies are needed to save lives.
According to Vox, the US is lagging behind other developed countries in reducing smoking. Apparently putting cigarettes in plain and unattractive packaging and joining the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) is just the ticket to remedying this problem.
Despite the US smoking rate declining for several decades, Vox claims the rate over the past couple of years “hasn’t budged.” This is a strange claim given the most recent data shows smoking among adults fell to 15 percent in 2015 from 17 percent in 2014, the biggest one-year decline in more than 20 years. Teen smoking also fell substantially, dropping to the lowest level on record.
Nevertheless, Vox proposes the US replicate a host of policies introduced in other countries and advocated by the tobacco control industry. First up, plain packaging for tobacco products.
Vox claims that replacing branding on cigarette packs with plain unappealing packaging featuring graphic health warnings has been proven to deter smoking and links to a host of studies purporting to support this claim.
For the most part, these studies involve asking smokers and young people if they find plain packaging to be less attractive than the conventional packs. Unsurprisingly, responses show that plain packs are seen as less appealing than branded packs. From these unremarkable results, researchers conclude a policy of plain packaging will deter smoking.
But there is no evidence to suggest that anyone starts smoking in the first place as a result of seeing particular kinds of packaging. Nor is there any real-world evidence that plain packaging has any effect on smoking rates. After Australia introduced plain packaging in 2012, cigarette sales rose every quarter. Sales only started to decline after hefty tax increase was introduced in December 2013.
Instead of reducing smoking, Australia saw a marked uptick in the market for cheaper roll your own cigarettes and a decline in the sales of premium brand cigarettes. When competition on branding was eliminated competition on price played a more pronounced role in the cigarette market.
Australia also suffered a substantial increase in the illicit cigarette market. The illegal market grew from 11.5 percent in 2012, to 14.3 percent in 2015, according to a report from KPMG.
Even more awkward for Vox’s narrative, data released August 13 shows for the first time in more than 20 years Australia’s daily smoking rate did not decline significantly over the most recent three year period of 2013-2016.
“For the first time ever, there has been no statistically significant reduction in the smoking rate, and an increase in the number of smokers in Australia,” said Colin Mendelsohn, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales. “This is despite plain packaging and the most expensive cigarette prices in the world.”
Aside from being ineffective, a major barrier to introducing plain packaging in the US is the First Amendment. Vox brushes this concern aside with a quote from the University of Waterloo’s David Hammond, who claims the protection of free speech is not unique to the US and that Britain and France have had no such trouble introducing the policy.
Free speech protections in the US, however, are unique and stronger than anywhere else in the world. Britain and France have massive restrictions on speech that would never pass muster with the Supreme Court. Any attempt to introduce plain packaging in the US would result in a titanic legal battle with tobacco companies trying to protect their intellectual property, wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money.
Along with a lack of plain packaging, Vox laments the fact that the US hasn’t ratified the WHO’s FCTC, which commits countries to a host of tobacco control measures
But the WHO’s FCTC is also highly secretive, unaccountable, and has advocated policies actively counterproductive to reducing tobacco-related harms. The last three FCTC meetings in Seoul, Moscow and Delhi have all seen journalists removed from the conference, and reports have been produced in secret.
The WHO has also been actively hostile to products such as e-cigarettes, which according to the Royal College of Physicians are unlikely to represent five percent of the risks associated with smoking. The WHO advocates these technologies be regulated as medical products or banned outright.
Vox’s analysis doesn’t even mention e-cigarettes or the smokeless tobacco snus, which is the key ingredient responsible for Sweden having the lowest smoking rate in the developed world.
Furthermore, a study published in the British Medical Journal July 26, almost a full week before Vox’s hot take on how to reduce smoking, provided some of the strongest evidence yet that e-cigarettes are helping American smokers quit.
For many, quitting nicotine cold turkey is not an option. And traditional remedies have proved unsatisfactory. But thanks to innovation and entrepreneurs, smokers now have newer and better options to help them quit.
E-cigarettes, along with new heat-not-burn technologies, represent a fraction of the risks of smoking. They allow smokers to continue to use nicotine while dramatically reducing their risk of fatal disease.
Any analysis that fails to account for the lifesaving and harm reduction potential of these products and pays more attention to the pet projects of tobacco control fanatics fails to see the wood for the trees.
Guy Bentley is a Consumer Freedom Research Associate at the Reason Foundation. He is a contributor to The Daily Vaper.