Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tobacco regulation

Two things:

Here's an Atlantic article about a classmate of Evan's at Wheaton who is facing FDA hurdles to selling his cigarettes. I've met David a few times - interesting guy. Unfortunately the ostensibly simple task of regulating tobacco rolled up in paper (if there are really any public health concerns here aside from stamping a warning label on the stuff for pregnant women, how hard could it really be???) has been a two year nightmare.

David Sley's response to the regulators is excellent: "We want a license to fail, the freedom to see if consumers want this product. We're just asking for the ability to market our product, and see if it sells. Currently, we remain unable to do so."

There's a role for an FDA in a free society. Look, we can't know everything about products on the shelf, some of it can be really dangerous, and free people have a right to get together and have a mechanism for looking over that sort of thing. The framers called that "providing for the public welfare". Fine. In my opinion we don't need to raise some libertarian rallying call over the principle here.

But what principle is holding up tobacco wrapped in paper for this long? How hard can that really be to sign off on a little bit of tobacco wrapped in paper, and get it on the market? This isn't an experimental anti-viral drug cocktail after all. It's a freaking leaf, dried and cured, and wrapped in paper. It's absurd.


Second, I have coincidentally been waging my own little email skirmish against American University's tobacco free campus policy that's going to go into effect in the summer. I just found out about it recently - after it was approved - but I've been voicing my objections.

Again there's no need for libertarian banner raising here. It's just a common sense application of the good old fashioned liberal tradition. I told them that we have a right to get together and regulate the use of  tobacco. I don't smoke and I bear a cost when someone smokes around me. So you make some dorms smoke-free. Maybe you even go as far as restricting it in well-traveled public spaces like the area directly outside the library doors. But no liberal or public purpose is served by evicting smokers from the whole campus. This is a private school. It's not a legal issue at all. It's a question of whether it's a liberal thing to do or not.

The response I got was that they are not restricting smokers' rights at all. Smokers have a right to smoke off campus. My response: "I see. Like Don't Ask Don't Tell respects a homosexual's right to be homosexual - just not in the military. Gotcha. This is still very disconcerting. If the policy is maintained then it is maintained, but please don't tell me that it respects smokers' rights."


This stuff doesn't have to be so hard. Common sense can solve a great deal of our social problems (public, as in David Sley's case, or private as in the AU smoking policy case). The problem is that common sense doesn't get the respect it deserves these days. We value political correctness and meddling ("smoking is a bad thing so we have to stop it") or rationalization of human life ("there is some legitimate public health basis for some regulation of food and drugs so we have to insert ourselves into every possible facet of bringing food and drugs to market").

We need more common sense. Let smokers smoke if they're not hurting anyone. Throw up a poster about how they're hurting themselves if you want. Trust me, they know that already but do that if you want. We need more common sense in the FDA too. Protect public health, but differentiate between the time it takes to get a leaf wrapped in paper on the market and the time it takes to get a complicated chemical with unknown side effects on the market.


  1. Oh boy! You really need to take some anthropology courses.

  2. I just added Hestia Tobacco's new blog, Leaves of Smoke to the blogroll; it's a fun and aesthetically pleasing read of the company's story as it goes along.

    1. So are there no sales at all right now? It's a total prohibition? Anything going on under the table? (you can email me - I obviously don't want a public paper trail or anything.

  3. I've been following Hestia since I first heard about them a couple of years ago. I am a social smoker, and I love the idea of this product - a truly special, high-brow cigarette. The FDA's overreach is ludicrous right now, and it's not just on this. I use a CPAP, and the rules have recently changed- it is not impossible to buy one without a prescription, even if you know you need it. So if you are not insured and can't afford to see a sleep specialist, it is nearly impossible to get care.

    1. Should be "now impossible", rather than "not impossible".

  4. I'm pleased you think this way Daniel, but to be honest I'm surprised.

    Apart from old left-wingers who want the freedoms they enjoyed to continue I haven't met very many young left-wingers who oppose this sort of thing. Your view is consistent with the old-style socialism of capturing the reigns of power from the rich and the aristocracy. I can't imagine Marx opposing smoking even if he knew about the damage it did to smokers. I can't imagine British social-democrats liking that idea either in the 80s, but now it's inconsistent with modern social-democratic thought.

    It's interesting how there are groups within the left and right who are pessimistic and optimistic about the ability of humans to choose and make their own decisions. The left is generally very pessimistic today, more than the right, even though things used to be the other way around not so long ago. Libertarians are generally optimistic, while conservatives are only a little less pessimistic than the modern left.

    1. I am intrigued... you thought I wanted to go around snatching people's cigarettes and heavily regulating and studying and holding up production on a pretty simple and well understood substance?

      I must be giving off some pretty bad vibes if that's the default assumption!

      I do not generally think of myself as "leftist" but the old left and the old "New Left" is a lot more interesting than a lot of the left today if I had to be so aligned.

    2. > I must be giving off some pretty bad vibes if that's the default assumption!

      I didn't think that you would think of things that way. Where I live support for anything that interferes with the tobacco industry is very strong (Ireland was the first place to ban smoking in pubs in 2002). Lots of people are very into "nudging" even if they haven't read the book.

      When I read someone's writing I like to ask a question.... Suppose this person were offered two choices. Firstly, they could make a one-off wealth redistribution so that every person on earth were materially equal, but at the cost that free-market capitalism would continue forever. Second, they could leave things as they are now, where the possibility of free-market capitalist ending or being severely curtailed exists. (I hardly ever ask this question, it's interesting mostly to think about).

      I think most would reject the first idea. One reason for rejecting it would be Marx's, that capitalism causes alienation and creates class divisions by itself. That's not a crazy reason, though I wouldn't agree. Another would be chance. Even with material equality some people will be much luckier than others, so in time class and wealth divisions will resurface. That's a bit more of a sensible reason. But, another group would reject the idea because they don't believe the humans are fairly equal in ability. They believe that innate individual differences would cause class and wealth divisions to arise again. This is also quite a reasonable idea, but it de-marks the split between Paternalists and non-Paternalists. These days most of the Paternalists would never admit to this view, at least not publicly. Though there's a book called "Against Autonomy" by Sarah Conly that was published recently that makes this case, so things are changing (I haven't read it, it's expensive).

      Amongst Leftists or "Progressives" there's quite a lot of difference of opinion about Paternalism. I can see it becoming a significant split between the academic Left and the political parties.

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