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Tobacco Wars collateral damage: feature, not bug

by Carl V Phillips

A single-observation post, inspired by the great consternation I am seeing this week about proposed FDA retail restrictions on vapes, ostensibly for the purpose of reducing vaping by minors. There are quite a few reasons this is a terrible policy (see coverage by Clive Bates here), but the theme of the typical criticism is that it will hurt legal “proper” vape consumers (primarily by denying them flavors they like or convenient purchase venues) more than it will “help” teenagers (by denying them something they want to do). The criticism is presented as if this supposedly odd perverse effect might persuade tobacco controllers to change the policy.

Here’s the thing: Hurting people who continue to use a tobacco product is considered a feature, not a bug. Despite the endless chatter about trivial policies, there is basically only one category of tobacco control policies that matter (by any measure), other than the bans that exist for some products in some places: the high punitive taxes on cigarettes and other products. These policies is lauded by many of the same people who condemn blunt-instrument anti-teen-vaping policies. Yet they are almost exactly the same from an ethical perspective.

The ostensible purpose of high taxes is to encourage quitting. This works for a few consumers (though far fewer than is typically claimed). But it is those who do not quit that suffer the effects of the taxes (the ‘inframarginal” consumers, in the economics jargon — those who are not on the margin where their choices are affected by the price change). So what we have is a policy that “benefits” a handful of people by causing them to quit (setting aside the obvious dubiousness of claiming that coercing a behavior benefits the coerced), while inflicting great costs on far more people who do not near the margin, and thus are not the ostensible target, and who share none of the “benefit”. Sound familiar?

I am troubled by the blindness and ethical double-standards apparent in the recent chatter. First, there is the failure to recognize that hurting non-target consumers is normal for tobacco control policies, not something they regret doing. When was the last time you heard a tobacco controller say “it is unfortunate that the inframarginal consumers suffer so much impoverishment due to high taxes, but it is a price we have to pay to encourage quitting”? Never, right? Because their real sentiment is consistently “those who refuse to quit deserve to be punished for it.” The failure to recognize the parallel in the current debate is not even an octopus memory problem — these are current policies.

Second, it is rather troubling to watch those who endorse punitive taxes on smoking complain about some other policy because it hurts non-target consumers. You can’t have it both ways. Either hurting a few million people so a few thousand can be “protected” is ok or it isn’t. “But I only care about harm inflicted on vapers, not smokers” is not a good look.

Original author: Carl V Phillips
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