by Carl V Phillips
Four and a half years in the making, this series is coming to an end (until I think of something else to add). Not with this post, but the next entry in the series, which will be a paper by Marewa Glover and me that I consider the definitive answer — collection of answers, that is — to the question. Well, again, until I think of something else to add.
For my new readers and those who want a review, this series starts and is indexed here. You will find, if you follow my writings closely or after reading Part 6, that some of my thinking has evolved. But it has not changed much. I still endorse almost everything that appears in the first four parts.
The present post touches on two distinct but similar points that were largely absent from the previous analyses. One thing that they have in common is that neither really has much to do with harm reduction, or low-risk products, or even tobacco product use. The first is a motive that leads to a desire to create an enemy, no matter what is being fought about. The second is about exerting and maintaining social control via imposing restrictions, no matter what is being restricted.
Tobacco control, as individuals and as an institution, wants to have enemies. Those pulling the strings will create enemies if not enough exist. Over the last few years, they have decided that it would be expedient to expand the enemies list to include vapers, those who encourage smokers to switch to vaping, and anyone else with positive things to say about vaping.
You might recall from previous entries in the series some motivations related to the tobacco control business model. As the portion of the population using high-risk tobacco products shrinks, so does support for the tobacco control gravy train. Societies are not going to spend billions to discourage people from an approximately harmless consumption choice. Thus tobacco controllers have the incentive to discourage switching to low-risk alternatives, and also to try to trick people into believing that the low-risk products pose high risks. Both of these goals are served by fighting a war against vaping any anyone who has good things to say about it. Closely related to this is the more subtle goal of anti-tobacco extremists, explained previously. Similarly, many governments and tobacco controllers have a strong financial incentive to maintain cigarette sales, thanks to the enormous revenue from taxing them (some of which is earmarked for the tobacco control gravy train).
The motive I am presenting in this post dovetails closely with those incentives. But it is distinct, and should be recognized as a thing in itself.
Groups of people like to have enemies. We are biologically programmed to want to fight someone, and our intellect is not alway sufficient to overcome that or reroute it all into the harmless competitive pastimes that we love. Our socialization sometimes reduces the urge to engage in damaging fights. But it often increases it, and often that is by design (as in the present case). This urge to fight, merely in order to fight, is apparent in everything from schoolchildren creating cliques to shooting wars. Sometimes it is Machiavellian, with elites creating enemies to keep the people rallied and directly enrich themselves through the conflict. But that does not fully explain it. Organize a group and they are going to want to be in conflict with someone.
Tobacco control started off as a war against ignorance, the lack of understanding about the health risk from cigarettes. That war was a complete success. That inanimate enemy was crushed and the ground salted. But that phase lasted long enough to create an institution, and when that war was won, new enemies were needed. The cigarette industry was the first addition to the enemies list. It was a great choice of enemy for a forever war, because there was never any serious chance of beating them.
Indeed, other than the immediate and ongoing residual effects of having defeated the ignorance, which decreased the interest in smoking by about half, tobacco control has barely landed a blow against cigarette sales. This created their frustration and paranoia that we are so familiar with, the delusion that everyone just must want to do the “right” thing and quit smoking (and other product use) so there must be some active evil afoot that is stopping it. This paranoia reinvigorated the hatred of enemy industry, but also spilled over into making those damned smokers the enemy too. They are resisting our efforts and not doing the right thing, after all.
That is a great enemy list. But, oops, the enemies became a lot less interesting to fight. Tobacco control did not make any substantial progress toward their nominal goal, reducing the harms from tobacco product use, but they did beat down their designated enemies.
Around the turn of the millennium, the major tobacco companies stopped fighting back. They instead adopted a strategy of just conceding tobacco control’s claims and making the best of the resulting environment. They did quite well for themselves, but they mostly stopped fighting. That made them much less exciting to have as the enemy. Even more so when they started actively advocating for harm reduction in the 2000s, and undoubtedly more so when some of them recently started trying to out-tobacco-control tobacco control.
Meanwhile, smokers had stopped standing up for themselves. As often happens to oppressed, discriminated-against, and abused people, smokers internalized the dehumanization they experienced. They mostly just started cooperating with their own oppression. Not a very inspirational enemy to further beat on.
Ah, but vapers, and vape shops, and vape manufacturers! They fight back, so it is fun to beat on them. A new enemy was needed, and there it was. Anti-THR was further enforced, therefore, just because tobacco control’s new chosen enemy happened to (mostly) be pro-THR. This was nothing personal — or rather, doctrinal; it just worked out that way.
Recall that for the earlier years of the vaping phenomenon, e-cigarettes and vapers largely got a pass from tobacco control. Yes, there was the odd regulation here and there, including bans and attempted bans. But there was not a lot of fire behind those efforts. Yes, there were a few cranks who adopted anti-vaping as a pet issue early on. But they were not the core institutions or individuals in tobacco control. Then, over the course of the last six years or so, vaping went from getting a pass (from the vehemence, anyway, if not every threatening regulation), to being a target, to being targeted far more enthusiastically than is smoking. (Historians seeking to chronicle that change could do worse than to step through the posts in the archives of this blog.)
It is difficult to explain this sea change without reference to tobacco control finding their old enemies to be no longer inspiring and fun to fight. As the war against vaping ramped up, tobacco controllers discovered that their inspirational enemies still existed, but now they vaped and sold vapes rather than smokes. And many of them advocate not just for vaping, but for THR.
That was a history of wanting to fight openly, for its own sake. But lurking in the shadows is a desire to fight much more secretly. This month, vapers are watching with horror as bans are implemented, asking such questions as “why would they do that without first…?” or “how can they do that, given that it will…?” Part of the answer is because there is a generic motivation to ban behaviors — any behaviors — and it found a good target. As with the first motive covered here, the fact that the actions turned out to be anti-THR was just an accident of circumstances.
Governments, oligarchs, elites, and other people in positions of privilege want to justify and reinforce their power and privilege. Sometimes the policy actions taken toward this end are obvious and calculated. But a lot of it is subtle and a matter of habit.
Criminalizing a private behavior is a perfect habitual way to reinforce and justify power and privilege. It offers a new option for controlling and punishing the powerless, particularly if they are getting uppity. The “uppity” bit also applies to punishing the somewhat-powerful if they dare cross the very-powerful. Stop-and-frisk only works if there is a good chance someone is holding an item they can be arrested for. The more items that are banned, the more opportunity. Meanwhile the elite are largely immune to being arrested or charged for such behaviors, let alone from any substantial punishment. In addition, by creating moral opprobrium for the degenerate behavior, via criminalization, those with privilege remind themselves of why they deserve more privilege than people who do that. (When the elites themselves do roughly the same behavior, somehow it doesn’t count, because their version of it is ok.)
It would serve these goals if those in power could criminalize, say, not dressing nicely. But they cannot get away with that. (The punishments for not being able to dress nicely are quite real, but less formalized.) However, for most drug consumption — including vaping nicotine — as well as a large fraction of sexual behavior choices, there is a large enough constituency that supports criminalization that bans can be enacted. Those in power are quick to want to ban nicotine vaping not just because of worries about nicotine and vaping (though those make it possible), but because they benefit from banning things. The anti-THR effect is, again, just an accident of what was available to target.
In a great 1994 speech, Gore Vidal described how the two themes addressed here are tied together. He takes it a bit further than I would go in places, but it is hard to argue. (I was surprised and disappointed to find the recording of that speech is not available online. It is the first track on this collection, and apparently my CDs of that are now worth quite a lot of money; they seems to be available only from a handful of university libraries. I will resist my urge to remedy its online absence via copyright violation and merely push at the boundaries of fair use on this page.)
After observing that “we have socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor” (which also seems vaguely apt as a metaphor), Vidal argues that the post-Roosevelt shift in that direction was made possible to focusing this country (the U.S.) on the forever war against the Soviets, until “spitefully, the Soviet Union dissolved itself…. They left us with a vast war machine and no war.” So, we sought a series of wars with weak countries. The fighting was for the sake of fighting.
After discussing some of those, Vidal goes on to extend the “search for enemies”:
The militarized state… has begun to focus on a new enemy, an enemy that is already half-subdued, but still capable of guerrilla warfare. I refer to the American people — to the 99% without representation in government or much access to expensive law. The rhetoric of government gives the game away: Drugs are a bad thing, and therefore we will declare war on drugs. Most civilized countries believe that drugs are a medical, not military, problem. But it is only through war that our rulers feel they can control the people.
The first strike in any such war is the creation of prohibitions. Those who disobey arbitrary prohibitions can be sent to jail or otherwise intimidated. Sexual taboos have always been exploited in order to terrorize the population…. Prohibitions on sex will be maintained until the end, not because anyone really cares about anyone else’s sex life, but because a prohibition of any kind — whether it be same-sex or smoking marijuana — gives the government a convenient weapon to strike at those who, let us say, might criticize its wars.
A quarter century later, we know that Vidal was a bit too pessimistic about the future legal status of both same-sex relationships and cannabis. Still the underlying point remains. As he notes elsewhere in the speech, “it is very easy for [the elite-controlled media] to demonize, even just in a week or two, a nation, a people, an individual.” Same sex couples and cannabis afficianados are doing just fine. So other demons are needed.
The war on drugs has proved to be the most naked example of a government intent on bringing all the people to heal. We are asked to believe that a government that has never cared about the health or welfare of 99% of the population is now deeply concerned that they might stupidly injure their health by taking drugs.
That line — the best in the speech — was greeted with wild applause. The harms that tobacco control (and other drug wars) inflict on the people they are ostensibly supposed to be helping make a lot more sense when considered in this context.
It is not the only explanation for that apparent contradiction, one that confuses so many observers. I have covered other reasons for the callous willingness to harm people in this series and expand on them greatly in the forthcoming paper. Whatever the motives of the foot soldiers in these drug wars, the power structure that makes the wars possible never really wanted to help. Opportunities for causing harm are the point. Harm reduction may be an accidental victim of the motives discussed in this post, but landing blows against it is hardly going to disappoint those responsible.
Vidal goes on to discuss what was, at that time, already then an imprisonment crisis, observing, “The current war on the American people, under the rubric crime, is doing almost as well as the famous war on communism used to do.” He summarizes with:
This is control of the citizenry with a vengeance. Anyone who understands the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence finds it impossible to regard as legitimate a government that feels free to pass laws forbidding its citizens to take drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, or any number of other products that might be bad for an individual’s health, but are of no concern to any state. Except a totalitarian one.
Perhaps that overstates things a bit.
But even if you do not accept the “totalitarian” hyperbole, the opportunity to criminalize, or at least denigrate, a behavior and stake out a new group of enemies is very tempting to the petit-totalitarian goals of the government and drug warriors. Battles may be fought about the specifics of vaping itself, but the addition of vaping to the larger war was not really about vaping.