Tobacco Prohibition

Apparently, almost half of New Zealand want to ban smoking completely:

The 2008 Health and Lifestyles Survey compiled nationwide interviews from the Health Sponsorship Council of 1608 people, including 422 smokers, and has just been published in the NZ Medical Journal.

It found 49.8 per cent of people agreed cigarettes should no longer be sold in New Zealand in 10 years, 30.3 per cent disagreed and 19.9 per cent neither agreed nor disagreed. Of the smokers surveyed, 26.2 per cent agreed and 55.3 per cent disagreed. The study also showed public support for plain, unbranded cigarette packets and fewer tobacco retailers. …

One of the study’s authors, Dr George Thomson, from Otago University, Wellington, called on the Government to take action.

“There’s now a need for politicians to embrace and act on the idea of a foreseeable and planned end to tobacco sales through a predicable timetable by 2020. The public wants more defined action to reduce smoking, and not a series of incremental steps.”

I can’t find much information on the survey from a quick googling, but I strongly suspect they asked the prohibition question in a leading way, with a variety of anti-smoking priming questions beforehand.  The other surveys they’ve conducted don’t seem particularly neutral. My worry is that misleading survey results like this could trigger anavailability cascade which makes people more likely to express support for prohibition.

Of course, I could be completely wrong: maybe half of  New Zealand really is that meddlesome.

In other news, I’ve switched to electronic cigarettes, which are a very good hedonic substitute for smoking, and much, much safer than smoking. (I bought from vapor4life, by the way, who have provided excellent product and service so far.)

If government tobacco policy was aimed at reducing the harm caused by smoking, the government would immediately redirect all tobacco control funding to promoting and subsidising e-cigs. This would be more effective and less harmful than spending money telling smokers they smell and that nobody wants to have sex with them. Unfortunately,healthists seem to think consuming nicotine is sinful. Tobacco control is less about helping people than it is aboutsignalling disapproval of those with different preferences.

Scenes from a Moral Panic

From Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine (1997), The Crack Attack: Politics and Media in the Crack Scare.
On September 5, 1989, President Bush, speaking from the presidential desk in the Oval Office, announced his plan for achieving “victory over drugs” in his first major prime-time address to the nation, broadcast on all three national television networks. We want to focus on this incident as an example of the way politicians and the media systematically misinformed and deceived the public in order to promote the War on Drugs. During the address, Bush held up to the cameras a clear plastic bag ofcrack labeled “EVIDENCE.” He announced that it was “seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” (Washington Post, September 22,1989,p.A1). Its contents, Bush said, were “turning our cities into battle zones and murdering our children.” The president proclaimed that, because of crack and other drugs, he would “more than double” federal assistance to state and local law enforcement (New York Times, September 6, 1989,p.A11). The next morning the picture of the president holding a bag ofcrack was on the front pages of newspapers across America.

About two weeks later, the Washington Post, and then National Public Radio and other newspapers, discovered how the president of the United States had obtained his bag of crack. According to White House and DEA officials, “the idea ofthe President holding up crack was [first] included in some drafts” of his speech. Bush enthusiastically approved. A White House aide told the Post that the president “liked the prop….It drove the point home.” Bush and his advisors also decided that the crack should be seized in Lafayette Park across from the White House so the president could say that crack had become so pervasive that it was being sold “in front of the White House” (Isikoff,1989).

This decision set up a complex chain of events.White House Communications Director David Demarst asked Cabinet Affairs Secretary David Bates to instruct the Justice Department “to find some crack that fit the description in the speech.” Bates called Richard Weatherbee, special assistant to Attorney General Dick Thornburgh,who then called James Milford, executive assistant to the DEA chief. Finally, Milford phoned William McMullen,special agent in charge of the DEA’s Washington office, and told him to arrange an undercover crack buy near the White House because “evidently, the President wants to show it could be bought anywhere” (Isikoff,1989).

Despite their best efforts,the top federal drug agents were not able to find anyone selling crack (or any other drug) in Lafayette Park,or anywhere else in the vicinity of the White House.Therefore,in order to carry out their assignment, DEA agents had to entice someone to come to the park to make the sale. Apparently,the only person the DEA could convince was Keith Jackson,an eighteen-year-old African-American high school senior. McMullan reported that it was difficult because Jackson “did not even know where the White House was.”The DEA’s secret tape recording of the conversation revealed that the teenager seemed baffled by the request: “Where the [expletive deleted] is the White House?” he asked. Therefore, McMullan told the Post, “we had to manipulate him to get him down there. It wasn’t easy” (Isikoff,1989).

The undesirability of selling crack in Lafayette Park was confirmed by men from Washington,D.C., imprisoned for drug selling, and interviewed by National Public Radio. All agreed that nobody would sell crack there because,among other reasons, there would be no customers. The crack-using population was in Washington’s poor African-American neighborhoods some distance from the White House. The Washington Post and other papers also reported that the undercover DEA agents had not, after all, actually seized the crack, as Bush had claimed in his speech. Rather, the DEA agents purchased it from Jackson for $2,400 and then let him go.

This incident illustrates how a drug scare distorts and perverts public knowledge and policy. The claim that crack was threatening every neighborhood in America was not based on evidence; after three years ofthe scare, crack remained predominantly in the inner cities where it began. Instead, this claim appears to have been based on the symbolic political value seen by Bush’s speech writers. When they sought, after the fact, to purchase their own crack to prove this point, they found that reality did not match their script. Instead of changing the script to reflect reality, a series of high-level officials instructed federal drug agents to create a reality that would fit the script. Finally, the president of the United States displayed the procured prop on national television. Yet, when all this was revealed, neither politicians nor the media were led to question the president’s policies or his claims about crack’s pervasiveness.

The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave

That’s the title of  a forthcoming book by Mark Schrad, which looks very interesting. I’ve read a paper on this topic by the author, which has been very useful to the chapter I’m currently writing of my thesis (basically analyzing the consequences of  what Schrad calls “bad policy ideas” on constitutional effectiveness). I really wish the book were out now. Here’s the blurb:

In The Political Power of Bad Ideas , Mark Lawrence Schrad looks on an oddity of modern history–the broad diffusion of temperance legislation in the early twentieth century–to make a broad argument about how bad policy ideas achieve international success. His root question is this: how could a bad policy idea–one that was widely recognized by experts as bad before adoption, and which ultimately failed everywhere–come to be adopted throughout the world? To answer it, Schrad uses an institutionalist approach, and focuses in particular on the US, Russia/USSR (ironically, one of the only laws the Soviets kept on the books was the Tsarist temperance law), and Sweden. Conventional wisdom, based largely on the U.S. experience, blames evangelical zealots for the success of the temperance movement. Yet as Schrad shows, “prohibition was adopted in ten countries other than the United States, as well as countless colonial possessions-all with similar disastrous consequences, and in every case followed by repeal.” Schrad focuses on the dynamic interaction of ideas and political institutions, tracing the process through which concepts of dubious merit gain momentum and achieve credibility as they wend their way through institutional structures. And while he focuses on one episode, his historical argument applies far more broadly, and even can tell us a great deal about how today’s policy failures, such as reasons proffered for invading Iraq, became acceptable.

Having it Both Ways

From p. 396 of Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess:

Yet the strangest situation of all had been rendered legal by a decision of the Supreme Court. The Court had ruled that the Bureau of Internal Revenue had the right to request income-tax returns from bootleggers. The Court saw no reason “why the fact that a business is unlawful should exempt it from paying the tax that if lawful it would have to pay.” In the argument of the case, it was even suggested that bribes paid to government officials might be held deductible as business expenses. To this day [1962], the bootleggers of the last dry state in the Union, Mississippi, pay federal income tax and a state tax on their illegal profits.

 

The Best Sentence I Read Today

When Wheeler publicly praised the insertion of poison into industrial alcohol on the theory that those who drank it were committing deliberate suicide, he did not persuade others of the humanitarian aims of the League.

Andrew Sinclair, Prohibition: The Era of Excess, p. 336. Poison is still added to some industrial alcohol, of course.

Prohibition Cartoon of the Day

1376_victims_pile

 

By Winsor McCay, courtesy of DrugSenseBot. For a few of the victims of contemporary prohibition, see here.

Alcohol vs. Marijuana Prohibition

Those who favour legalizing marijuana often point out that both the personal and social costs of alcohol are much higher, and argue that it is inconsistent to prohibit pot but not booze on conventional ‘public health’ grounds. That’s fairly difficult to deny, but the further step is often made that it would be preferable to prohibit alcohol than to prohibit marijuana. I don’t think that’s right.

As things stand, many more people enjoy alcohol than marijuana. I don’t think this entirely depends on the fact that the former is legal, and therefore more available at lower cost and higher quality, than the latter. Alcohol is a stronger pro-social drug than marijuana and has more predictable effects. Nobody has unpleasant experiences with alcohol except when they overdo things and it’s pretty easy to regulate your alcohol consumption to ensure you have a good time. The peak experience of those who enjoy pot may well be more pleasant than that of alcohol, but it appeals to a smaller market.

My guess is that alcohol would garner a much higher aggregate willingness to pay than marijuana, even if both were legal. I’m not terribly comfortable making interpersonal utility comparisons, but I don’t think it would be unreasonable to say that alcohol prohibition would lead to larger welfare losses than marijuana prohibition. This is a good argument for the idea that marijuana prohibition could be justified and alcohol prohibition unjustified on utilitarian grounds*, but I doubt prohibitionists would view more people smoking pot as grounds for legalization.  

*Not that I think the prohibition of any recreational substance is ever justified, and I certainly don’t think marijuana prohibition is utility-enhancing. 

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