Thursday, May 19, 2011

Smoking, drinking & problems in public policy

I woke up this morning feeling like a crusty curmudgeon, something that has been happening more frequently.

The proximate cause was plain packaging laws on cigarettes, another in a series of restrictive social measures that will add to cost and complexity without positive effect, at least in terms of stated aims. My old blogging colleague Neil Whitfield put his support for the measure in these terms: "Of course anything which inconveniences the tobacco industry gets my support nowadays."

Neil has just given up smoking by the way, a decision that I support. I quote from one of his Facebook messages:        

78 days, 22 hours, 29 minutes and 38 seconds smoke free.
3947 cigarettes not smoked.
$2,528.00 saved.

Well done!

As it happened, a day or so before my exchange with Neil I passed a group of those young people that now litter Sydney streets collecting money for charities, in this case the Cancer Council. They were a bit taken aback when I said that I would not contribute, that I thought that the Cancer Council had become a bad thing!  I could have added, but did not that, the Cancer Council had become just one of a series of bodies including the RSPCA that I could no longer support.

See what I mean by a crusty curmudgeon?

My core problem is a simple one. I am sick of social control measures that reduce individual freedom but don't work. I am sick of the growing number of not-for-profits that support such measures because it aids their survival, feeds their raison d'être. These bodies do not provide evidence nor objective advice, but act as advocacy groups for particular positions in isolation of other considerations. In a competitive market place, they survive by promoting the importance of the particular axe they have to grind.

Take the packaging laws. If their purpose is to punish the cigarette companies or smokers, then let's debate that. If their purpose is to reduce smoking, then let's focus on that.

In NSW, the previous Government introduced regulations requiring retailers to limit cigarette sales to just one cash register. Retailers were also required to alter fittings so that cigarettes could not be seen. These moves were intended to reduce smoking. Did they have any affect? No. Worse, blind Freddy could have seen this.

Now the new packaging laws are highly unlikely to reduce smoking. In fact, they may well entrench consumption while encouraging smuggling. Entrench smoking? How might this happen?

Laws and regulations such as those concerned with smoking are dealing with a multi-faceted issue in which different measures can conflict.

Laws banning cigarette advertising were, I think, effective in limiting new cigarette consumption, in part because they combined with changing social attitudes. I might have had doubts about them at the time, but I would now give them a tick. In similar vein, health education programs in schools pointing to the dangers of smoking were effective for a period because they provided factual information that kids could comprehend. Now this has turned around.

The previous combined message was simply don't smoke, it's not good for you. Here are the risks. That seemed to work.

Now that smoking has turned from a social habit to something more akin to a drug habit, it has become an identified act of rebellion, something illicit. I am sure that this will be added to as the plain packages circulate. Now I have the strong impression that the number of younger smokers is increasing.

I don't want to deal just with smoking in this post. However, I did want to add one side-effect of the various laws. They have actually increased the health risks among those who do smoke because the way smokers now smoke has changed.

Non-smokers find this hard to understand.

Take a single cigarette. When I first started smoking, when it was more a social habit, smokers would light a cigarette, take a draw and put it down. You might actually smoke only half a cigarette measured by direct smoke drawn into your lungs. Chain smokers, those who smoked and smoked, were somewhat looked down on. 

Now what happens? As smokers rush outside for a smoke break, they smoke as fast as they can. Far more of each cigarette is drawn into the lungs than used to be the case. In broad terms, the practical effect of the restrictions is to approximately double the intake of adverse toxins.

Drinking among young people in Australia is a problem.

I actually find it hard to understand, and I grew up in an environment in which drinking among the young was common, how a sometimes abused right of passage has turned into a modern Australian drinking culture.

No, I don't think that I am being naive. I have a very clear recognition of my youth, and of some of the Barry Humphries' songs. Just for nostalgia's sake, here is a video clip from that past.  

Okay, so what's changed? Well, the level of acceptable serial drunkenness is, to my mind, unbelievable, as is willingness among the young to actually accept what should be unacceptable behaviour.

It must be clear that I am not a puritan. However, there is a balance question.

As with smoking, one of the difficulties is that Government responses are not very sensible.

Sale of certain mixed drinks called alcopops were seen as a special problem. The Government put a special tax on them. As a revenue measure it was effective. As a measure to control levels of drinking, it had no measurable affect because people switched drinks.

This has become a long post, so I will pause my curmudgeonly moan here.

I would only note in finishing that over the last few years I have analysed more than twenty examples on this blog of policy making in the "it seems like a good idea class" that had no real chance of working. Each case was supported by particular special interest groups. When they failed, the reaction of the special interest groups and of politicians was to go for more restrictions.

It's a case of when you are on a bad thing, stick to it!


In a comment, Winton Bates pointed me to a rather remarkable story, Bhutan: Twenty Four. How many more?.

Maybe this is what Australia needs to maximise gross national happiness. 

Postscript 2

Neil has restated his position in Selling dog turds as pearls and diamonds. I was going to add a comment, but find that I don't really care. Life's too short.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mr Curmudgeon (aka Jim)

All I can say is good on you! and a pox on any newly converted smokefree zone, such as Neil Whitfield for instance - or especially him, if he puts his case well.

Below is a cut of some doodling I did when Mr Rudd P.M. announced a new grab from smokers (sorry, a new health initiative, in the best interests of our country etc. etc. ...)


as at 29 April 2010

Revenue at old consumption rate, and old excise rate: $10,028,448,000
Revenue at new excise rate, but 6% reduced consumption: $11,783,426,400
(GST effect is ignored, but is positive for revenues)

cutting number of smokers by 87,000 (which is 1.6415% of 5.3 million smokers)


I'll send you a document with the supporting stats and references, but for now, I'll sign off with a hrmmfph, and a slight cough, and an iron determination that I will decide what is best (and worst) for me, thank you very much NOT.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi David and thank you. Your email received. Will respond direct.

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
I think anti-smoking campaigns are becoming a form of persecution.

I was more or less in favour of restricting smoking in public places. I am not sure how great the health threat is from second-hand smoke, but there was at least some attempt to present a case that smoking should be restricted because it is anti-social. Perhaps the most important externalities are subjective e.g. a lot of people, including myself (since I reformed) have a strong dislike for cigarette smoke in areas where they are eating.

However, the most recent interventions seem to me to be paternalism gone crazy. I think you are right that plain packaging could be counter-productive in terms of discouraging young people from taking up smoking.

Jim Belshaw said...

I despair a little on this one Winton because it is part of a rise in moral puritanism, and not just in Australia, that asserts a right of one group to impose limitations on another simply because they don't like particular behaviours and regardless of any adverse consequences.

I thought of doing a post on this one by deliberately taking a charged issue such as homosexuality and then applying the anti-smoking arguments.

You start with the health arguments, in this case HIV aids. You address this through a safe sex campaign. Then, when this doesn't work "properly", you bring in laws intended to control by making certain behaviour illegal. From this point, those who personally dislike homosexuality and find it offensive and are convinced of their moral rightness use health arguments to justify further restrictions. Since the bad practice that people really object to continues, you have no choice but to introduce a total ban. When that fails, you send people to jail.

This may sound extreme, and I won't do the post because it would be seen as inflammatory and people would say but you are not comparing like with like, you are being silly or even homophobic (one person's right is another's moral objection), but it does make the point.

It's also not so far off the mark if you look at Uganda.

In a sense, and this is one I have tried to deal with before, once you have a rules rather than principle based system, it is open to everybody to manipulate the rules.

Anonymous said...


I just wish they'd take the hypocrisy out of it, and admit that tobacco is a nice little earner for the government. All this hand wringing about a healthy community is just so much rubbish.

Never mind Uganda, a closer comparison is James Hardie and asbestos - a known carcinogen with a very few producers. Easy to knock off once the facts were out. But if asbestos had been the drug of choice of a quarter of our population, and was as revenue positive for the government, I bet we would still all be living in fibro houses, whilst wringing our hands.

With tobacco, we will probably see any retail price decrease balanced neatly by increased excise - all in the name of healthy living of course.

And I do hope you took my poke at Neil in good spirit? Good on him for getting the devil off his back, but the accuracy of his 'days free' is a bit of a worry...

Maybe I should've included a smiley ;)


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. No, I didn't misconstrue your comment on Neil, I don't think that he would either. Still, a smiley is a good idea, one that I must remember! It just takes the angst out of things.

On tobacco & excise, you are probably right.

James Hardie. Not sure, although I take your point.

Winton Bates said...

The contrast between changing attitudes toward smoking and homosexuality is very interesting.

As an aside, if we follow Bhutan down the Gross National Happiness track we may end up jailing people who have more that a minimum quantity of tobacco products. See post by Sonam Ongmo on her Dragon Tales blog here.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good lord, Winton. I will bring this link up in the main post!