14 May 2011

Unhealthful News 134 - Those with their own facts have no right to broadcast their opinions

[Hat tip to @themorrigan1972 and her apparently inexhaustible ability to track down what people are writing about tobacco policy, which must be painful because so much of it is so bad.  The examples here come from her tweets from today.]

Rule of thumb:  If someone presumes to be offering a normative judgment about something, but cannot even get the basic facts straight, stop reading (unless, of course, you are deeply interested in the topic and want to know what people are saying that is wrong).  If you are a relatively uninformed reader on the topic, you will only pollute your memory with recollections about things that just ain't so.

For example, in an op-ed in the Orange County (California) Register, Michelle Steel, Vice Chair of the state Board of Equalization writes about "The unseen cigarette-tax crime wave".  She might have something useful to say about how prohibition-ish levels of cigarette taxes make the incentive for black markets overwhelming and what to do about it, but I stopped reading after the first paragraph:
Sophisticated criminal organizations have one incentive: money. They find a need and fill it. It doesn't matter whether the product is narcotics, prostitution or terror, the goal is the same; more money. They use that money to fund their other illegal activities.
You might think the vice chair of the California government unit that controls markets and taxes for cigarettes, alcohol, gasoline, and similar nefarious products would know some basic economics.  Ok, maybe you wouldn't.  Immediately after stating that the goal of organized crime is to make money, she goes on to suggest that organized criminals really like to just fund illegal activities.  Granted, her first statement is not entirely correct since some people like amassing empires, even at the expense of consumption (to say nothing of the fact that there is not really much of a market for terror).  Still, since the goal is mainly to make money, which anyone who understands economics knows is another way of saying the goal is to enjoy access to the consumption that can be purchased with money, why would they use it all to fund other enterprises?

This is the same kind of silly statement as suggesting that that energy companies exist in order to create pollution or that prepared food companies are trying to make their customers fat.  Those may be side-effects, but they are no one's goals.  (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to fill in the obvious example about the supposed homicidal goals of tobacco companies.)  Based on my expertise from having watched every episode of The Sopranos, I am pretty sure that they relish company profits because of the personal consumption they afford, just like the rest of us.  And the history of northeastern US politics tells us that the ultimate goal is not to fund other illegal activities, but legal ones.  That way you can end up with your scions becoming Senators rather than being shot.

Anyway, getting back to my point, it is true that some amount of liquid capital is needed to start any new business enterprise, criminal or otherwise, but the entry fee for smuggling is pretty low so we should not get too excited about that angle.  A useful analysis would be that the same infrastructure that allows the smuggling of one good facilitates the smuggling of others, which could create problems.  On the other hand, the War on Drugs has already created so much smuggling infrastructure in North America that it is not clear that an increase will matter much. 

Occasionally an organization with intentionally violent goals uses black markets to earn funding, but the emphasis on those cases is mostly War on Drugs scare tactics.  Mostly it is just a business, with no more desire to create more crime than ExxonMobil looks for new ways to just create pollution.  In many places, like the illicit drug markets in New York City, violence is pretty much absent and they are just normal businesses.

(Aside:  The "smuggling funds terrorism!" claim reminds me of a video presentation someone submitted for the tobacco sessions as the recent harm reduction conference in Lebanon.  I edited out the bit – pulled from US government statements – about how cigarette smuggling in the US is funding evil terrorist groups like Hezbollah.  Since the point was not very central, there did not seem to be any reason to say that about a member of the coalition government of the country we were sitting in.)

A second example is from the anti-tobacco group, "Join Together", ostensibly reporting on new research about a "New Form of Smokeless Tobacco".  Some of these errors and oversimplifications might be excusable for a small-market local reporter writing a story about the topic, but show fatal incompetence on the part of a specialist organization.  Picking them up in order of appearance:

"A type of smokeless tobacco popular in Sweden called snus…"  No, snus is just the Swedish word for the moist snuff form of smokeless tobacco, and in the US just serves as a marketing term with no specific definition.

"..most recognize that it is a safer alternative to cigarettes or older forms of smokeless tobacco"  Many people guess that it is a bit safer than some other (not necessarily older) forms, but it is difficult to "recognize" something that has never actually been scientifically established.

"Snus was first introduced in several U.S. test markets in 2006, and has been available nationwide since 2009."  Even considering only the products that they seem to be referring to, I suspect this comes as interesting news to those who have been using/selling Swedish Match products in North America for decades.

"The product is different from other types of smokeless tobacco …. doesn’t stimulate saliva the way that snuff does and thus doesn’t require spitting."  That is laughable even without the non-distinction between snus and snuff (kind of like saying the French are healthier because fromage is better for you than cheese).  Is it really the case that neither the tobacco pundits writing this article nor the "researcher" they are quoting, Lois Biener of University or Massachusetts, know that dipping stimulates salivation ("stimulate saliva" provokes some interesting images) if you put the product in your lower lip/cheek, but not so much if you put it under your upper lip.  It does not matter what the product is; the same is true for cough drops.  Here is another good rule for aspiring researchers and writers:  Before claiming expertise on a popular behavior, take a few minutes to find and talk to at least one person who does it.

Anyway, I could keep going with another ten of these (I only got through the first three paragraphs), but I suspect I am boring those of you who know the subject (because you have seen it before) and even more so those of you who are not very interested in the subject.  The point is that anyone who cannot get the basic facts about a subject right is not entitled to an opinion in the matter and has no business polluting the news with their "insights" or "research".

1 comment:

  1. I tend to tweet the unbelievable and fantastic so that someone else will read it and find the obvious flaws.

    Reading this stuff is painful, writing about it must be much worse.

    Thank you for the hat tip,


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