Monday 7 July 2014

Slippery strawmen?

Well, this post from Otago's Richard Edwards pretty much confirms everything that we've been warning you about slippery slopes.

Edwards asks whether we shouldn't just ban tobacco entirely. He writes:
This blog considers some arguments for and against a ban on the production (other than tobacco grown for personal use), importation and sale of tobacco products, whilst not criminalising the use of tobacco. The purpose of such a measure would be to ensure, hasten and sustain the achievement of the goal of close to zero smoking prevalence by 2025. The blog comes down on the side of intensifying other tobacco control approaches initially but also encouraging a public debate about setting a ‘national quit date’ in a few years time when the tobacco industry would be stopped from selling its lethal and addictive tobacco products.
For me, the latest instance of facing the ‘why not ban it’ question was a Whangarei City councillor (a smoker) who issued the challenge when I was trying to persuade his council to introduce by-laws that would increase the number of smokefree public places, license retailers and commit to the 2025 goal. The usual glib response, which I duly gave, is that it is neither practical nor justifiable given that hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders still smoke.
However, 20 years ago smokefree bars were inconceivable, and 10 years ago the suggestion that the government would adopt a goal of reducing smoking prevalence to close to nil as possible would have been fanciful. Those whose immediate response to the question is that ending tobacco sales is preposterous, might reflect that almost everyone seems to agree that if cigarettes were a newly developed product they would be immediately banned with little debate or dissent due to their highly addictive and hazardous nature and attractiveness to children. The ambitious 2025 goal requires ambitious measures and the fact that smokers themselves often suggest banning tobacco suggests we should no longer peremptorily dismiss this idea as impractical or too radical for our times, but should appraise it on its merits.
Every step makes the next step easier. He points out that smokers are a steadily shrinking minority, that there's wide public support for a smokefree vision, that the elites have largely abandoned smoking, and that the tobacco industry is viewed as a pariah. But it might not quite yet be time for a full ban:
However, there is a theme in New Zealand’s current political discourse which favours minimal intervention and has a low threshold for labelling regulatory or legislative interventions as manifestations of a ‘nanny state’. If a policy to end tobacco sales became viewed in this way then it could quickly become politically unpalatable and implementation unfeasible. Indeed, if seen as too radical and punitive, a proposal to end tobacco sales could conceivably intensify and expand the breadth of opposition to tobacco control. If so, advocacy for such a measure might be counter-productive by discrediting and derailing less radical tobacco control approaches and even the Smokefree 2025 goal itself.

Overall the social and political environment appears favourable. However, the small risk of a political and publish backlash suggest that if advocacy for a policy ending tobacco sales is to be successful and not counter-productive, then its merits must be carefully explained and debated.
So if folks like me rile up the hooples too much by confusing them into thinking that, somehow, a complete ban on smoking might just have nanny-state qualities to it, then pushing hard for a ban now might not be the most productive thing for them. And so continued incremental steps might make a future ban less radical a change. Steps?
Tobacco companies have created retail front groups that claim that reductions in tobacco sales (via any policy) would spell disaster for retailers, particularly small local dairies and convenience stores. Again, an immediate end to tobacco sales would be more problematic, but a planned medium-term introduction of the measure would provide opportunities for retailers to adapt to a modified product array and diversify their product offerings. Furthermore, any loss of tobacco-related revenue would be mitigated by smokers redirecting saved money to purchase other products.
This reminds me of the nonsensical argument an MoH staffer was trying to push a few years ago that tobacco retailers could earn even more money after a ban because they could then sell more profitable items. At least they're saying loss-mitigation rather than profit opportunity.

Back to Edwards:
Finally, it is important to consider other credible options. Perhaps the biggest counter argument to ending sales of tobacco, at least in the near future, is the strong evidence that existing measures have greatly reduced and are continuing to reduce smoking prevalence. However, evidence based on projections of recent prevalence reductions suggest that these will not be sufficient to achieve the Smokefree 2025 goal, particularly among Māori (7,8).
Hence, a credible alternative would require an extension and escalation of current tobacco control activities. This could include continued and intensified tobacco tax increases, mass media campaigns and targeted cessation support, extension of smokefree public places, introduction of plain packaging, complete removal of duty free concession perhaps accompanied by new measures such as regulation of the product (removal of additives and denicotinisation from cigarettes) and alternative supply-side measures such as restrictions on the location, density and type of retailers that can sell tobacco products.
Compared to tobacco sales this approach may be almost or as effective at reducing prevalence, and may be more feasible and have fewer potential disadvantages, though it would require far more policy-making resources. For instance, large annual increases in tobacco taxation are likely to be far more politically acceptable, pose less constraints on smokers’ autonomy, and will maintain government revenue; though they do present social justice issues due to their impact on poor smokers. Of course whether such a comprehensive programme will be implemented, and hence is really a credible alternative, is decidedly uncertain.
So, the playbook over the last 30-40 years or so: set minor policy changes every few years that work incrementally to de-normalise smoking and tobacco. Restrict use in some public places that seem like protection of non-smokers at first, then extend it outwards not to protect non-smokers, but to stigmatise smokers. Eventually smokers are so marginalised that a full ban becomes politically palatable. First you de-normalise, then further regulate, then ban. And, at every step, deny that the next step's already planned. Until it's too late to matter.

Now, if you follow alcohol policy, how often have you heard this one: "Alcohol is no ordinary commodity"? Or, that advertising, availability at some event, shops with visible signage, or brand sponsorship normalise alcohol consumption and so should be restricted or banned? There's a lot of focus on making normal alcohol consumption not seem normal. There might be a reason for that.

A lot of these policy documents will draw the parallel to tobacco before claiming that, unlike in the case of tobacco, they're just trying to hit heavy or harmful consumption and so full-on tobacco-style restrictions aren't needed. But every year, we move further through the list of tobacco controls that the anti-alcohol folks want applied to alcohol too.

Richard Edwards's post helps show that we're not building strawmen when we warn about slippery slopes. There's a direct mechanism in which each regulation makes the marginal political cost of the next one a bit smaller, helping to facilitate it. And there's pretty clearly a planned effort to push through the incremental steps on the way to the end goals: each makes the next seem less radical. Slippery slopes are only logical fallacies if there aren't these kinds of mechanisms.


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