Motueka’s (Very) Grey Market in Tobacco

This story of a Motueka tobacco farmer (hit tip: hefevice) makes me want to take up smoking again so I can buy this guy’s wares. Despite being raided and dragged through the courts, Laurie Jury is maintaining there is nothing illegal about what he’s doing: selling dried, unprocessed tobacco leaf, he says, is not the same thing as producing tobacco.

To him, his continued high-profile involvement in tobacco growing, as probably the last self-acknowledged commercial grower in the country, is nothing more than a small farmer growing a small crop of a plant he knows well and sees an opening in the market for.

The small fact that his determination to stick with tobacco has seen him fall foul of the authorities twice now in five years, the second time involving a raid by armed police on his Pangatotara home last week, only hardens his resolve.

The Customs officers who arrived at his place in the wake of the Armed Offenders Squad came with a search warrant that suggested Mr Jury was a suspect in a range of offences, including helping defraud Customs of revenue.

They took all the leaf he had stored in his shed – he won’t say how much, but one report said it was about two tonnes – and a bunch of other stuff, including $4000 in cash, but he is confident they didn’t take anything that is going to land him a conviction.

The last time they tried, as he likes to point out, their case all but collapsed and they had to return the tobacco they had seized.

His argument is that there is no law against growing tobacco and, as far as he has always understood it, nothing in the law to stop him from selling the raw, dried leaf.

So that is what he does, as he freely admits. Buyers, he says, range from passers-by in camper vans who have seen his roadside crop and want some leaves as a “souvenir”, to customers in the North Island.

To be honest, I don’t like his chances of surviving in the long term. The law may not currently prohibit his business, but law is always open to interpretation or change. Public and elite opinion is swinging violently against tobacco, and courts are responsive to public opinion.

The most disturbing part of the story is the way recent raids were conducted:

The memory of [the prior court case] also meant he wasn’t exactly floored by the events of Tuesday last week, which started with being woken before 6am by the sound of his partner, Michelle’s, dog, Diesel, barking ferociously at the end of their driveway.

He grabbed a spotlight to investigate, shining it on to the road frontage, where the dog was “nutting off”, charging up and down the fenceline.

Mr Jury could see nothing, but seconds later, his phone rang, the voice on the other end advising that the police – armed police – were outside his property to help Customs execute a search warrant, ordering him to turn off the spotlight, get dressed and go outside with his hands up.

As he describes what happened over the next few minutes, it is clear the police weren’t mucking around. Armed Offenders Squad officers had stationed themselves along the road, on his property and on the stopbank across the highway. He says he counted at least 10 blue laser sights on rifles being pointed in his direction.

He was shouted at, ordered down to the road frontage to be greeted by snarling police dogs, handcuffed and loaded into a car.

That’s pretty standard practice in the States, but armed cops are the exception rather than the rule here in New Zealand. Armed raids makes the image of a war on tobacco much more vivid.

Tobacco Taxes

So, the New Zealand government has voted 118-4 to increase the sin tax on tobacco.  The funny thing is, the move was led by the Maori party, whose supporters contain a disproportionate number of smokers who probably don’t want a tax increase, and supported by the centre-right National party, who campaigned on an anti-nanny state platform.  I’m with Eric on this:

You know who I really feel bad for? The folks who voted National thinking they’d get less nanny-state as consequence. And, worse, the folks who campaigned for them on that basis. Think harder about it next time, guys.

While I know most politicians don’t feel the need to justify the passing of laws, surely there must be some among those 118 who think that there should be some sort of reason.

Do we need to increase tobacco taxes to pay for the costs of smoking on the health system? Nope: smokers pay more than their share. On that basis, we’d decrease the excise tax considerably.

Does ignorance among smokers as to the true health costs of smoking undermine the welfare-maximising tendency of free choice, meaning we need to force people to do what they’d do given full information. Nope. Even if you think ignorance justifies coercion, the fact is that people radically overestimate the health risks of smoking. If we wanted to encourage people to make the decisions they’d make if they were fully informed, we’d subsidize tobacco.

The real reason for increasing the excise tax on tobacco is a combination of arrogant paternalism and bigotry. Turia and Key think they know what’s best for you better than you do yourself and see smokers as disgusting deviants who must be punished. As Joseph Gusfield (writing about alcohol) says:

As his own claim to social respect and honor are diminished, the sober, abstaining citizen seeks for public acts through which he may reaffirm the dominance and prestige of his way of life. Converting the sinner to virtue is one way; law is another.

Anyone in favour of the increase care to offer another explanation?

Healthists Say the Darndest Things

From the comments on this post on the dangers of third-hand smoke (bollocks):

Smokers should have to urinate in a separate system or something so as not to pollute the earth and harm others.

Hat tip: Chris Snowdon.

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.

Smoking is Gay

This video from The Onion is funny, but not too far from the reality of current campaigns (Hat tip: Balko).

Many PSAs aim to stigmatize smokers rather than inform people of health risks of smoking. I’ve always hated New Zealand’s Not Our Future campaign for this reason. They’ve just started running some new ads. The message of one is a pretty clear: “If you smoke, you won’t get laid.” It seems to ask local two-bit celebrities (both male and female) whether they’d go out with a smoker. The responses are what you’d expect: “Hell no!” “It’s unattractive” “It stinks.”

They have a shitty site, so I can’t link to it directly, but you can watch it by going to videos (TV in lower left corner), adverts, advert 1.  If anyone finds a linkable or embeddable version, please let me know in the comments.

Yandle on Tobacco Regulation

Bruce Yandle, author of the wonderful paper “Bootleggers and Baptists: The Education of a Regulatory Economist,” applies the logic of that paper to FDA regulation of tobacco in the latest issue of The Freeman:

No, there is no evidence to suggest that tobacco has until now been “an industry that has gone basically unregulated.” But there is ample evidence that tobacco regulation has served the interests of the industry and the politicians that broker favors to the industry. Meanwhile, consumers of tobacco products, who are generally a lower-income population, have been denied the benefits of competitively determined product information; they also have unwittingly become major sources of revenue for state politicians, who generally provide more benefits to higher-income than lower-income consumers.

One can only speculate about what might have happened had the FTC not outlawed health-effects advertising and had the industry not become one of the more regulated industries in America.

Read the whole thing.

Government Waste I Support, Relatively Speaking

Michael Marlow has a very good paper in Regulation questioning the effectiveness of tobacco control spending:

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc) released a report detailing “best practice” spending recommendations for state tobacco control programs. According to the report, “Research shows that the more states spend on comprehensive tobacco control programs, the greater the reductions in smoking—and the longer states invest in such programs, the greater and faster the impact.”

Marlow points out that this research, like so much used by the public health movement, is deeply flawed. Looking carefully at the data, he concludes that:

Empirical evidence does not generally support the cdc claim that states that spend more on tobacco control deter more tobacco use than states that spend less. Contemporaneous spending on tobacco control is never found to exert an inverse effect on sales, and at times is found to exert a significant and positive effect on sales, contrary to the claims of the cdc. The true effect, however, appears to be zero based on current and past spending discounted at various rates. There is limited support for cdc claims regarding its recommendations on funding adequacy when this spending measure is discounted at rates of 5 and 10 percent, but not at rates of 15 and 20 percent. When significant, however, these effects arise at fairly low levels of confidence and with trivial effects on cigarette sales, and therefore suggest very cautious support for the cdc recommendations concerning adequacy. These conclusions are based on a battery of tests that consider various measures of contemporaneous and past spending and adequacy and are conducted over an eight-year period in which over $5 billion (in 2005 dollars), or roughly $18 per capita, was spent on tobacco control.

This study raises questions about the process by which the cdc determines its spending recommendations and whether the process is designed to reach a particular conclusion about tobacco control policy rather than to uncover policies that may best allocate resources toward controlling tobacco use.

Given that I think people smoke too little, I see the ineffectiveness of tobacco control policies as a good thing. Sure, the government extracting money from taxpayers and pouring it down the drain is a prima facie bad thing, but the alternative is for the money to be effective in promoting the healthist agenda of maximising lifespan while ignoring fun.

As Crampton and Farrant have shown, when government is evil, we should want it to be incompetent as well. Now, I don’t think health promotionists are evil, but I think they succumb to the all-too-human impulse of treating their own preferences regarding health and fun as universally valid, and assuming those in disagreement must be rescued from their own stupidity. That’s a very dangerous attitude when backed by the coercive force of government.

Money down the drain is better than money being used to efficiently take away our liberties.

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