Thursday 4 May 2023

Tobacco prohibition

Last year, Guy Bentley and I put together a joint submission on New Zealand's proposed very low nicotine content rules. 

We noted an interesting parallel to alcohol prohibition. During US alcohol prohibition, near-beers of very low alcohol content remained legal. But they didn't prove very popular. Of course, the VLNC rules would amount to prohibition of smoked tobacco. They wouldn't amount to prohibition of nicotine, because vaping would remain legal. So overall effects would be harder to peg.

It's Section 2 of our submission. The section's far more extensive, but the most relevant bit is right up front, in 2.2 through 2.4:

2.2 VLNC rules, if sufficiently binding to make smoking unpalatable, amount to tobacco prohibition. Alcohol prohibition in America allowed the sale of ‘near-beers’ of less than 0.5% alcohol. Despite beer-like liquids being legal, illicit trade in alcohol flourished. We will here refer to VLNC rules sufficiently stringent as to make cigarettes unpalatable to current smokers as constituting tobacco prohibition. 

2.3 However, alcohol prohibition was fundamentally different from the proposed tobacco prohibition. Alcohol itself was prohibited except as prescribed medicinally, or as used in religious sacraments. Under stringent VLNC rules, cigarettes would be de facto prohibited, while nicotine would remain legal if delivered through vaping. 

2.4 How tobacco prohibition will play out in New Zealand, where the illicit tobacco trade is growing but where many legal and safer forms of nicotine are available, is impossible to predict accurately. 

Pretty clear, right? The section, as a whole, goes through the reasons that it's hard to peg what proportion of current smokers flip to reduced-harm alternatives, and how the VLNC rules would affect how we think about other bits of the legislation like retail tobacco outlet licensing. 

Here's how Otago University Public Health's Janet Hoek characterises things in a piece at The Conversation. She doesn't name us; we're too Voldemort for that. But she does link our submission.

Who gains from black market scaremongering?

There are obvious risks to relying on industry evidence. In 2006, a US court found international tobacco companies acted with “intent to defraud or deceive” the public about the harms from smoking for decades.

A New Zealand lobby group supported by tobacco companies appears not to have critically reviewed industry evidence but instead amplified the claims. Its submission during the consultation process for New Zealand’s smokefree legislation erroneously argued the measures would amount to prohibition. It drew incorrect parallels with alcohol prohibition in the US.

Nicotine products will in fact remain available, either as approved treatments (such as nicotine replacement therapies) or through vaping products. Prohibition arguments are as baseless as they are misleading.

I'm glad she included the link at least. 

The natural reading of her piece at The Conversation is that our submission ignored that nicotine products will remain available, and that our submission intended to mislead people because we have tobacco company members (among 70 or so members). 

Please read our whole submission, and Hoek's full column, and judge for yourselves which of us had intent to defraud or deceive. And draw your own conclusions about academic standards at my shop, compared to Otago University. 

I've sent a note to The Conversation asking whether this meets their editorial standards.

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