Tobacco control does the easy thing, not the right thing

I recently read an article on how humans will tend to do the wrong thing, as long as it’s the easy thing.  The article reports on some research done regarding moral decisions (like whether or not to cheat on a test or help another person out), and researcher Rimma Tepper states that “People are more likely to cheat and make immoral decisions when their transgressions don’t involve an explicit action. If they can lie by omission, cheat without doing much legwork, or bypass a person’s request for help without expressly denying them, they are much more likely to do so.”  For instance, the article describes the results of an experiment where people were presented with the option to check off “Yes” or “No” in response to whether or not they would be willing to assist a learning disabled person, while others had to actively click a link to volunteer to help.  They found that it was easier for people to simply not click the link and avoid volunteering than it was for them to check off the “No” box and explicitly deny their help.   (This idea is quite similar to the organ donor question presented in a TED talk by Dan Ariely awhile back.)

That people tend to be lazy about their moral decisions may not seem all that revolutionary to some, but it is interesting, especially when thinking of this on a larger scale.  In terms of tobacco control, the easy thing to do is to go along with the status quo; smoking bans, graphical warnings, and opposition to low-risk nicotine products are all the rage right now, and it’s far easier to just go along with them all and agree than it is to point out the junk science and try to correct the massive amount of disinformation out there.  The FDA, WHO, and almost all other anti-tobacco groups have fallen in step with this, and the farther they go with their draconian anti-tobacco regulations, the harder it is to go back.  For instance, now that misleading and inaccurate textual warnings on smokeless tobacco have been rolled out, it makes it very difficult for an agency like the FDA to correct them, since it would require them to admit they made a mistake.  They have also expressly indicated their opposition to e-cigarettes, and to suddenly turn back on that decision and admit their error would make headlines all over the world.  For governments and other groups to correct this kind of disinformation would take a great deal of explaining, as well as a lot of policy reform, red-faces, and possible firings.  So, the FDA will continue to do the wrong thing when it comes to tobacco, because it’s the easy thing.

It’s a similar story for researchers in the field of tobacco.  If you decide to take a negative stance on all tobacco products, accurate or not, you will suddenly have access to tons of funding and easy acceptance into journals (no matter how rife with junk science your study may be).   On the other hand, saying truthful things about the relative risks of different tobacco products can get you exiled from conferences, journals, and tobacco control circles.

There is a comedian (I can’t remember the name) who once indicated that politicians who changed their minds about things were seen as wishy-washy, and were looked down on by the public as people who, since they were wrong about one thing, could be wrong about another.  Of course, changing one’s mind is usually a sign of intelligence, not weakness, since nobody is right about everything all the time.  And from me in particular, you won’t hear any “I told you so’s” if policy gets changed to favour tobacco harm reduction products…  I’ll just be thrilled that the right thing is finally being done.



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  • Carl V Phillips  On December 1, 2010 at 8:56 am

    “When the president [Bush] decides something on Monday, he still believes it on Wednesday — no matter what happened Tuesday.” –Stephen Colbert, at the WHCD


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