A not-too-inaccurate article in the Detroit Free Press has been picked up by quite a few resposting services. The article is about the availability of snus locally, but the take away message seems to be that it is possible for young people below the legal age to buy it from many merchants. The article contains the usual boring disinformation. The reporter seems to attribute to Ken Warner the paraphrase, “Some wonder whether the new products might reduce the overall risk to smokers by making them light up less often or quit altogether — even though those products might increase the risk to the overall population by hooking new users.” Of course, it has been thoroughly shown that there is no possibility of this. If Warner really said that, he should be credited with impressive mastery of the Fox News “make an outrageous statement but hide it in a question or speculation about what people think” technique (e.g., “are people now thinking that Barack Obama murdered Vince Foster as part of a Muslim initiation ritual”). Terry Pechacek threw in the usual attack them for whatever they do, condemning the use of cigarette brand names (in a different world he would have been equally critical had the manufacturers used different branding, accusing them of trying to hide the association). Yes, boring stuff.
But what got me interested is the question of youth buying snus. What is the right way to think about that (not the legally mandated or politically correct policy, but what would be actually best for the world)? I suspect that any merchant who would sell snus to teens would sell cigarettes, and that the latter purchase would be made if the former was not, or perhaps the kid would just acquire the much more widely available product from someone else. In that case, only the extremists would fail to agree that it is better if the kid uses snus as a substitute for the smoking he would have done.
I would like to propose an exchange program, where kids can trade cigarettes for equivalent amounts of snus (in terms of delivery, not risk — the latter would get expensive!). After all, if they already have a cigarette in hand, leaving them no choice but to just smoke it is the worst possible choice.
Musings aside, what if cracking down on underage snus purchases drives kids to smoke instead? Let’s set aside those who argue otherwise and assume there is complete agreement that low-risk nicotine products should be denied to kids — treating them like the age-limited cigarettes rather than the free-to-all Starbucks or Red Bull that they are actually more similar to. (See how I did that? I am not actually aware of anyone who dares argue otherwise. I learn fast — Ken Warner was once one of my mentors). We do not want to open any floodgates, then, but should we really abandon all attempts to steer kids who are starting a tobacco habit toward the low-risk version (which, incidentally, is generally believed to be easier to quit)? It starts to get complicated, with open empirical questions about whether enough of the underage snus consumers would have been underage smokers and such.
Hmm, these themes start to seem strangely familiar. The arguments, like Pechacek’s, that promoting THR to adults is somehow bad are nonsense. But as soon as we start with the assumption that absolute prohibition is appropriate, as is the policy for kids, there actually is some complication of exactly the sort that is often claimed. The message is, then, that if and only if complete prohibition of all nicotine products is the accepted goal, then the arguments made against THR are not the utter nonsense that they are when someone tries to disguise them as being about public health or compassion. I think the main implication of this is as further evidence of the extremist hypothesis: the leading anti-tobacco activists take positions and make statements that cease to be nonsense if you assume that everyone agrees that complete prohibition is the primary goal, and if improving health and welfare are in the way then they must be sacrificed. In other words, they are acting based on the extremist premise, but knowing that they have so little support for that that they disguise it behind other claims.
– Carl V. Phillips