04 March 2011

Unhealthful News 63 - CNBC's unintentionally brilliant presentation about tobacco and policy (part 2)

[….continued from yesterday…]

The Mad Men reference near the end of part 1 was introduced in the broadcast by a career advertising man whose expert opinion was that cigarette manufacturers do not have to advertise to attract those who might become new users.  Indeed, he argued, the advertising bans were of huge value to the companies, costing them no substantial amount of business and saving them a lot of money.  His premise was once again left unstated and unexplored, but it was presumably that if advertising were allowed, companies would fight in an almost zero-sum arms races to try to lure customers from one brand to another.  He further commented that social awareness is lure enough, and that no kids watch Mad Men and then become enamored of the fictional smoking and take up the habit. 

The certainly seems like it should be the default conclusion, barring high-quality evidence to the contrary.  After all, many drugs are quite popular with no advertising at all, with one of them apparently more population than smoking.  As the representative for refusing to believe the obvious default conclusion, the broadcast introduced its third anti-hero, Stanton Glantz.  Glantz's ubiquity in stories like this cannot be because he is insightful or interesting, so you have to figure he has some serious dirt on people, or perhaps Bloomberg uses his substantial pull to demand that someone else be included who makes him appear sensible and an expert in public health science by comparison.  I notice that Glantz's comments are not mentioned or included in the online clips from the broadcast, so perhaps the pull only goes so far.

Glantz states, with the certainty available only to those who consider science to be a rhetorical tool for manipulating people, that an image of someone smoking, such as Sigourney Weaver in Avatar, is the crucial remaining bit of advertising that causes kids to smoke.  After all, as I previously noted, we know that kids love to emulate the behavior of annoyingly abrasive characters played by 60-year-old actresses.  He suggests that movie directors who portray smoking are "stupid" for not collecting advertising fees from tobacco companies.  The alternative he proposed was that they were "corrupt", by which he presumably meant they were actually collecting secret payments.  He is apparently unaware that a private agent providing a service in exchange for payment is called "commerce", while "corrupt" refers to someone like a government official taking payments to betray the trust put in them as agents.  But since movie directors are not acting as agents for anyone, they cannot be corrupt unless they are ripping off their studios.

If this is the biggest intellectual mistake Glantz made the day he gave that interview, it was probably a pretty good day for him.  Moreover, this was actually not as amusing as the claim he made at some length, about the evil marketing to children by tobacco merchants, that starts with collecting contact information from those attending industry sponsored events at bars (i.e., adult-only events at adult-only venues).  I could not even begin to guess how Glantz thought that works, though I do not doubt he really believes it.  When confronted with the "what about the farmers?" theme, Glantz responded like a true member of the out-of-touch ruling class in a time of massive involuntary unemployment, with "they should just get another job".

Of course, someone who is producing a product that is not demanded (like, say, good public health analysis) does need to get another job.  And the show included much about how the American growers were worried that their product was not demanded, at least not at the prices they needed to make a living.  They were desperately worried about weather, volatile prices, and finding markets, including their complaints about the cigarette companies who were ending their long-term contracts.  (The companies, who declined CNBC's invitations to appear in the broadcast, were never really vilified, as is standard, but were discussed like they were a somewhat destructive force of nature always lurking below the surface.)  One of the Kentucky growers was shown trying to drum up buyers at international trade shows, but kept being told that their prices were too high. 

This appeared in the same hour-long show– without the show's producers ever apparently realizing there was a connection – with the the grueling labor-intensive process of growing, harvesting, and processing tobacco, and with the observation that various low-wage countries now out-produced the U.S.  (Aside:  Also left unconnected to the worries about the children were the pictures of the child in a tank-top participating in the harvest, dragging sheaves of leaf with his sweaty arms wrapped around them.  Do people really not know about dermal absorption of nicotine?)  One of the farmers commented that you can make $1500/acre for tobacco, many times as much as for other crops.  But what was completely missing from this business network's broadcast was that this premium comes from the aforementioned labor intensity -- 250 person-hours per acre was mentioned -- and the fact that for commodity production, the world is flat.  If you want to work in a call center, you had better be willing to work for Indian wages.  Tobacco is increasingly the same. 

The message the viewer was supposed to get from the story, as the tale was told, was that the drop in demand (as manifest by the drop in price) was due to anti-smoking, despite the scenes that talked about the continuing popularity of smoking in the world.  Somehow the fact that global competition has anything to do with it did not seem worth mentioning.

This is why the show's insight seemed to be unintentional.  The discussions with and about the farmers seems so incredibly naive.  Even beyond the "gee, how can Americans be having a difficult time competing in a labor-intensive business?" problem, the most absurd point was probably when the reporter posed repeated incredulous questions to one of the farmers about his ethics.  How could he accept the suffering and death that he was contributing to?  The reporter became even more incredulous about the claim that a farmer could just put such suffering out of his mind and get on with his work.  Apparently he is unfamiliar with the entire American meat and egg industry.

But the unintentional brilliance that shone through was telling the tale of tobacco not as a head-to-head battle of powerful interests, let alone as good-versus-evil, but as a story of classic everyman protagonists being beaten down by powerful forces that do not even notice them.  And those powerful forces are not naively portrayed as public-spirited heroes, but rather accurately shown as the standard type of powerful special interest political actors, making a good living fighting for one narrow faction side in a battle that has many valid sides.  They are not portrayed as villains, and we can see they are motivated by something they believe is a heroic calling, but they are portrayed as highly flawed characters:  The out-of-touch royalty, the matter-of-fact operator who has become a victim of thinking the ends justify any means, and the paranoiac who might have once been a hero.  It reads like Watchmen.

Or maybe all that was not unintentional.  Maybe it was business network writers and producers, perhaps frustrated novelists, intentionally ignoring simple principles of business in order to fulfill their urge to create a story.  That urge  might earn some sympathy from an expert critic of bad health science and poor scientific writing wandering off into literary criticism, but as journalism it requires a judgment that is a bit more cynical.

With that in mind, I cannot end this without criticizing the fundamentally unfortunate and non-brilliant points.  There was not a single mention, not one, of low-risk alternative products that tobacco could be used to make.  There is probably little chance that American tobacco can compete with cheaper production in providing extracted nicotine for e-cigarettes and pharmaceutical products, but there is room for premium American product to be used in smokeless tobacco.  It is truly bizarre to talk about cigarettes' markets, health effects, and inputs without ever mentioning harm reduction.  But it is even more bizarre to do so with only a cursory reference to the people who use the products, and the costs and benefits they experience.  It may be standard literary fare to focus on a battle among dozens that causes millions have their lives buffeted, but that is not good journalism, however clever the story.

1 comment:

  1. That was my problem with this program, as well. They completely ignored the potential of the smokeless market. Without the barriers set up by the anti-tobacco faction, reduced-harm smokeless products could be a very lucrative market, solving both the health issues and the environmental smoke issue. It would also take away from the lucrative anti-tobacco advocacy business, smoking cessation business (Big Pharma) and tobacco tax revenues - something they will fight very hard to protect. If everyone switched to smokeless or e-cigarettes, the only ones making money would be the tobacco & e-cigarette industry. The rest would all be out of business and they aren't about to let that happen.

    I wish the show was called "Tobacco Wars" and about an hour longer to cover the REST of the story!


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