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Tobacco Control Cares About The Industry, Not About You (Part 2)

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Carl V. Phillips Contributor
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The first part of this column explained that the primary motivation of the tobacco control movement is not helping people quit smoking, nor even slowing tobacco product initiation. It is hurting “the industry,” a mythical monolithic actor. This is all but stated in the global tobacco control playbook, the WHO’s FCTC. It is difficult to imagine packaging restrictions having much effect on consumption, and as previously reported the data confirms the intuition. But those restrictions, along with advertising and branding bans, do make it harder for companies to maintain a sense of identity and eke out a bit more net revenue from each sale. Tobacco controllers consider that a win.

Tobacco control’s mythology says that all of industry is diametrically opposed to interests of the tobacco control movement. This myth is the tail that wags the dog of tobacco control policy. Their policies are, in effect, created by industry decisions; whatever a company does, tobacco control will oppose. Usually that merely results in a needless waste of resources (on all sides), but it is also deadly: Simply because “the industry” tries to encourage a low-risk alternative to smoking, tobacco control must try to stop it. This is true whether the actions are being taken by hundreds of small vapor product businesses or by a giant cigarette company with a new heat-not-burn technology. It has been true for fifteen years, dating back to when “the industry” that tried to encourage switching was a couple of smokeless tobacco companies who wanted to replace smoking. It does not matter that many non-industry advocates also favor encouraging product substitution. The “it does not matter” is not just a figure of speech — in tobacco control’s mythology, it literally does not matter what anyone other than “the industry” thinks.

It is hard to see why any advocate would get very excited about plain packaging and other restrictions on brand recognition. They do not prevent anyone from making their preferred choice, nor do they reduce smoking. Packaging rules lower the welfare of consumers slightly, by denying the bit of pleasure they get from nice packaging and forcing them to glimpse gory faux-warning pictures. But the rules probably also save them a bit of money by driving down prices and facilitating illicit trade. Whatever the net effect, it is inconsequential. Advocates who seek to improve people’s lives should just add the claim — that these policies reduce smoking — to the long list of demonstrated tobacco control lies and move on. Indeed, to get very excited about packages would be the same mistake as tobacco control: “They” really care about it, so we should also.

Tobacco controllers are intensely excited about anti-branding efforts for just one reason: companies care. Some dimwitted tobacco controllers — those who do not understand they should not say the quiet part out loud — like to call this the “scream test”: The more that companies work to oppose a regulation, the better tobacco control likes it, regardless of its other effects. It is not as if the real goal is helping people.

Why do (some) companies fight these policies harder than they do tax increases or low-risk product bans? In part, because they have a way to do so. Branding restrictions violate trade treaties and national free speech laws. Sometimes the courts rule against the companies based on the “health considerations” clauses in the treaties (something that might become more difficult now that the claim these policies reduce consumption has been debunked), but companies have a decent chance. The FDA’s attempt to cover cigarette packages with gory pictures was struck down by a US court. Corporate legal departments are constantly taking actions to protect the brand. It is boring work, but it is what they are there to do. For tobacco controllers, though, getting sued is oh so exciting. It means someone is screaming!

Companies fight to protect their brands because devaluing them is an existential threat to a corporation’s identity and results in lower per-unit revenue. It does not matter to “the industry” whether people ask for Marlboros by name and are willing to pay more for them (indeed, most of the industry would prefer otherwise), but it matters a lot to Philip Morris. In short, companies are trying to keep their prices higher. Tobacco controllers also want to keep prices higher. But their myth of diametrically opposed interests — that anything a company objects to must be good for “public health” — keeps them from recognizing that premium brand manufacturers share their goal of making consumers pay more money. A popular bit of social media snark is the observation that someone is “[taking some self-defeating action] to own [group they hate].” Tobacco control policies frequently epitomize this: lowering the price of cigarettes to own the industry.

It was not always so. Tobacco companies were banned from advertising on American television in 1970, and this was recognized as a huge benefit to the major cigarette makers. Television is expensive and most of the motivation for this big spending in a fairly static market was to try to capture and retain premium brand smokers. It was an almost zero-sum arms race. Coke and Pepsi would have loved to forbid television soda ads, but arranging that would be illegal collusion. Anti-smoking campaigners wanted to discourage smoking and change the mindspace surrounding it, and did not really care whether this action increased industry profits. More recently, the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement was a negotiated agreement to make consumers pay more money and give states a stake in continued cigarette sales. It was a huge win for the cigarette makers, but tobacco controllers were fine with it because it created a de facto national tax that would discourage consumption.

Something changed after that, in no small part thanks to the massive influx of money the MSA created for tobacco control. They became so powerful that they became insular, and their insularity resulted in toxic mythology.

Today, advertising is not going to reverse the negative attitude toward smoking (at least not in most populations), nor somehow dis-educate people about its harms. But “the industry” chooses to advertise, so it must be banned. Ironically, the myth results in such rigid thinking that it does not even occur to tobacco controllers that they might be saving companies money.

The tobacco control playbook contains detailed instructions on how exactly to mess with industry’s advertising practices and packaging. Methods to actually reduce smoking in that playbook read like a vague afterthought or an effort to employ more tobacco controllers: “run anti-tobacco campaigns, whatever seems good; also provide quitlines and NRT.”

Outside of tobacco control, of course, there are some excellent plans for reducing smoking, thanks in large part to some of the individual companies that comprise “the industry.” One thing that would really help those companies advance this effort is more advertising. Advertising bans merely inconvenience established cigarette companies and cost them a few dollars. But for alternative low-risk products, they enforce ignorance and defend the status quo. Of course, out-and-out bans of low-risk products are worse still. Since some companies “scream” about those policies, tobacco control counts them as another win.

Tobacco controllers cannot just come right out and say that they do not care about health risk or consumers more generally. They are forced to craft some excuse for why their wagged-dog policy really has some purpose other than spite toward their supposed enemy. Those excuses are the subject of Part 3.

Read Part 3 here

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Carl V. Phillips