Tobacco controllers need to justify intentionally harming the people they claim to be helping. Even if only a few of them have pangs of conscience about inflicting harm and disregarding personal liberty, they still must convince policymakers to be complicit. Anti-tobacco policies have basically exhausted education (everyone knows the risks) and making “approved” smoking cessation aids available. This leaves only punishments as policy options, including taxes, lowering product quality (such as making the packaging ugly), and further restricting where the products can be purchased or used.
A new paper, in the activist journal Tobacco Control, is an obvious attempt to provide an excuse for intentionally hurting people “for their own good.” The paper, which was funded by FDA and first-authored by a long-time anti-tobacco extremist, reports on a survey of smokers. It finds that most are unhappy about their smoking status, mostly because they are worried about the health effects. There is more detail, but that is a sufficient summary. However, the result was spun by the authors in their press release as suggesting that policy decisions should ignore the fact that smokers get pleasure from smoking.
This completely misrepresents the result of the paper, which merely claims that the result of everyone magically quitting smoking would be a net welfare gain. This claim – which itself is a gross over-interpretation of the survey results – does not mean that there is no lost pleasure from smoking cessation, let alone that there is some ethical justification for ignoring it. The claim is merely that the lost pleasure would be outweighed by the benefits for quitting.
Vapers should be vigilant, for this claim that pleasure should be ignored will likely find its way to vaping policy debates. This is despite the fact that the claim is unsupported even for smoking, and it is based on consumers being worried about health impacts, limiting its relevance to smoking.
There are several more fatal flaws in the authors’ interpretations of their results. First, the survey responses should not be interpreted so naively. Smokers have the option of quitting. It is often not easy, but it is always an option. Thus when smokers’ assert, as cheap talk, that they hate what they are doing despite choosing to continue doing it, this is suspect. The best available interpretation of these assertions is that they are second-order preferences. That is, the smokers do not actually want to stop smoking (as their behavior demonstrates), but rather they want to be someone who does want to stop smoking. But they are not that person, at least not yet.
Second, despite one of the authors being a renowned scholar of decision analysis, the authors ignore the lifecycle benefits of smoking and only focus on current feelings. That is, it is entirely consistent with their data that smokers have gotten a net benefit from smoking but later, when there is a price to be paid, they wish it would all go away. This is not to say that a life of smoking is a good idea, but someone regretting something later does not mean taking it away is a good idea. Many 40-year-olds wish they had enjoyed less recreation and leisure in their youth, and had spent more time investing in their skills, but that does not mean we should prohibit leisure for the 20-year-olds who will become those 40-year-olds, let alone take future leisure away at age 40 (which is not going to undo the existing impacts).
Third, and most important, even if the analysis were correct, it is premised on a magic bullet. As the authors put it, “discontent smokers could have a substantial net welfare gain if new regulations helped them escape their concerns about the health effects from continuing smoking.” But, of course, there is no such magical escape. Policymakers, whom these authors are inappropriately advising to ignore the benefits of smoking, have only two arrows in their quiver.
One option for policymakers is further punishing smokers, now that they have been (wrongly) told that they should ignore their ethical qualms about hurting the people they claim to be helping. This will push a few smokers to quit, and if one were to believe the claims of the paper, the quitters will be better off than they would have been as smokers (even aside from the punishment). But this policy will still harm the countless others who are not pushed into quitting, including smokers who have no desire to quit but will still be punished. The paper, because it based on the absurd assumption that policymakers have a magic bullet to make every smoker quit, makes no attempt to assess the net social impact of this. Policymakers who actually care about people’s welfare should not use this as an excuse to ignore the suffering anti-smoking policies cause.
The second option is encouraging smokers to switch to vaping, smokeless tobacco, or other low-risk alternatives. This is what the results of the paper genuinely support, though the authors ignore that fact.
A smoker who has deep misgivings about continuing to smoke, but continues to smoke nonetheless, is not asking for a magic bullet that makes all smokers abstinent tomorrow. She is certainly not asking to be punished more for her smoking. She wants a way to keep doing approximately what she is still choosing to do, but without the health costs. Though she apparently does not know it, she quite possible wants to vape, or perhaps use snus or a heat-not-burn product. This is true whether someone dismisses her preferences and choices with a pejorative “addicted,” as the paper authors do, or whether we respect her freedom of choice and recognize the benefits of smoking.
Every time tobacco controllers note the harms from smoking, they make a case for encouraging vaping and other low-risk alternatives. When they argue that smokers really do not like smoking, even though they choose it, they are making a far stronger case still.