The plain truth about plain packaging

I suppose you have to try policies out before you conclude whether they’ve worked or not. But now we’ve tried out plain packaging and it didn’t work according to its own aims, can we maybe give up on it? A new paper from scholars at the Australian National University, aptly entitled “The Plain Truth about Plain Packaging: An Econometric Analysis of the Australian 2011 Tobacco Plain Packaging Act”, and the first proper study of the scheme, brings the news.

Ronald Coase famously argued that if you tortured the data long enough they would confess. In this paper we have tortured the data, but there has been no confession. At best, we can determine the plain packaging policy introduced in December 2012 has not reduced household expenditure of tobacco once we control for price effects, or the long-term decline of tobacco expenditure, or even the latent attributes of the data.

To the contrary, we are able to find a suggestion that household expenditure of tobacco has, ceteris paribus, increased. In our forecasting exercise the actual data come close to breaking through the 80 per cent confidence interval. While we do not want to over-emphasise these results, we do conclude that any evidence to suggest that the plain packaging policy has reduced household expenditure on tobacco is simply lacking.

Of course, the ASI had already been suggesting this is the result we would find based on simpler analyses; and don’t forget that it is not a costless policy. If smokers derive extra pleasure when they smoke from getting their cigarettes from attractive branded packets then this is a benefit of branded packets, not a cost. And note that underage or young smokers, typically short of cash, tend to smoke cheaper cigarettes—Richmonds and Mayfair were my friends’ choices when they were 14.

Funnily enough, this paper’s release coincides with new evidence from the Office for National Statistics that e-cigs do not bring non-smokers into the tobacco fold.

E-cigarettes are almost exclusively used by smokers and ex-smokers. Almost none of those who had never smoked cigarettes were e-cigarette users.

Not really a surprise. But then even if e-cig users did include some who had never smoked before, this doesn’t imply that they moved from (safe) e-cigs to (dangerous) cigarettes. What’s more e-cigs have a number of benefits, that I tried to sum up when the EU tobacco directive came up in April, as part of a case that the anti-smoking crackdown has gone too far.

1.  Nicotine has many substantial positive effects

2. Smokers overestimate the dangers of smoking

3. Passive smoking may not be dangerous (at least to women)

4. Smoking is social, enjoyable, creates identity and meaning, and relieves boredom

5. Lifetime health expenditure is lowest for smokers

(If I was writing today I might add 6. Smoking substantially reduces Parkinson’s Disease risk, especially if you do it lots and don’t stop and this is true for other diseases as well).

The point is not that we should all start smoking, although there is actually a good case that nicotine is a nootropic—see the first link above—it is more that smoking has substantial benefits to the individual (as well as the noted health costs), and relatively low net costs to society, especially when you factor in the huge amount smokers pay through tobacco taxes. When we turn ‘smoking’ into ‘smoking e-cigs’ the costs evaporate, probably entirely, and the benefits remain.

Cracking down on traditional tobacco may have gone too far—but cracking down on ecigs is crazy.

Do we really want Theresa May to decide who speaks at universities?

We already have a burgeoning anti-free speech movement coming organically from politically active students so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Theresa May wants to chip in as well, seeking the power to pick and choose who gets to speak at UK universities.

New powers for the home secretary to order universities to ban extremist speakers from their campuses are to be included in the counter-terrorism bill to be published on Wednesday, Theresa May has announced.

The bill will also place a statutory duty on schools, colleges, prisons and local councils to help prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, the home secretary said.

She said universities would have to show that they have put in place policies to deal with extremist speakers.

“The organisations subject to the duty will have to take into account guidance issued by the home secretary. Where organisations consistently fail, ministers will be able to issue directions to them “which will be enforceable by court orders”, May announced.

Since we already have laws against inciting violence, presumably these laws will not really help crack down on terrorism advocacy which says ‘go and blow people up’; to be useful at all to courts and the government it must have a wider remit. Thus, it seems like more marginal ‘extremist’ figures will be targeted; not just Muslim clerics the government doesn’t like, but perhaps pick up artists deemed to advocate violence against women, or perhaps anti-abortion campaigners (note what the UCSB professor called the poster-holding campaigner).

Practically every political viewpoint of today would have been judged inconceivably radical and/or extremist to almost anyone from 17th Century England. The benefits of free speech come from the free exchange of ideas, a process which often weeds out bad ideas and leaves good ones alive. To guarantee we enjoy their continued benefits we have to stand against even the smallest, least objectionable infringements made—wherever they come from. Even ugly speech must be protected if we are to enjoy these prudential benefits.

Even if free speech ought sometimes to be curtailed in general, to make some areas ‘safe spaces’ for unprivileged groups who would otherwise be made very uncomfortable, it seems like universities are one place where we are best placed to let it run wild—you would think that they are bastions of smart, open-minded free inquiry.

Theresa May surely realises from her struggles with the European Court of Human Rights that laws can have unintended consequences. It is surprising that she seems so unworried about handing future Home Secretaries the right to decide what speech goes on in our universities.

So we’re to have internal exile in the UK now, are we?

Welcome to the new land of freedom, liberty and human rights:

Terror suspects will be moved out of big cities and put into ‘external exile’ after a shock U-turn by Nick Clegg.

The Deputy Prime Minister has agreed to re-instate the so-called power of relocation – which was scrapped in 2011 at the demand of his own Liberal Democrats.

At the time, one senior party figure labelled the measure ‘abhorrent’, ‘Stalinist’ and ‘authoritarian’.

But the abolition of the power has been blamed for two terror suspects absconding and, at a time of huge concern over jihadis returning from Syria, Mr Clegg has struck a deal with the Tories to allow its return.

Under legislation to be unveiled next week, the law will allow fanatics to be forcibly ordered to leave London, Birmingham, Manchester or other big cities to separate them from their extremist network.

They will then be made to live in more isolated rural towns identified by the Home Secretary, on the advice of MI5 and the security services.

This is quite what the Soviets did and didn’t we all complain when they did this to Andrei Sakharov and Yelena Bonner, sending them off to Gorky where they couldn’t annoy the Muscovites any more. Various Fascist regimes, other communist regimes, had much the same sort of policy. Those who said things that the rulers didn’t like got sent off to some rural backwater on the say so of the nomenklatura.

And the point about such systems is that they’re meant to be examples of dystopias of various kinds, not a bloody handbook for how to run our own country.

It may well be that Abu Hookhand or whoever desires that we all be slaughtered in our beds until the Caliphate is established: but that still means that Hookhand or whoever should be, must be, accorded exactly the same rights a you or I have. Punishment can only come from having been charged, tried in an open court, with a jury, evidence, defence, a judge and the right of appeal right up through the system.

Do we individually and as a society face any danger from such extremists? Sure we do, they’re opposed to almost all of the things that we think make up a decent society. But the danger from a few bearded nutters is as nothing to the risks of killing our own liberties in defence against them.

Either we have equal rights and liberties or we don’t have rights and liberties at all, not ones that we’ll be able to maintain.

Can we stop talking about the alleged ‘gender wage gap’ now?

Many are boasting good news on the ‘gender wage gap’—I agree, it’s great news: the Office for National Statistics’ findings offer more proof that wage gaps have very little to do with gender, and much more to do with choices each gender is prone to make.

From the BBC:

The average full-time pay gap between men and women is at its narrowest since comparative records began in 1997, official figures show.

The difference stood at 9.4% in April compared with 10% a year earlier, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, a gap of about £100 a week.

This as well:

Hourly earnings figures reveal that, in April 2014, women working for more than 30 hours a week were actually paid 1.1% more than men in the 22 to 29 age bracket and, for the first time were also paid more in the 30 to 39 age bracket…

…The government said that, from next year, it was extending the rights for shared parental leave. It had also invested in training and mentoring for women to move into higher skilled, higher paid jobs, and guidance to women looking to compare their salaries with male counterparts.

Women, from the start of their careers, are now earning a higher salary than men; and, if they choose to make the decision to stay in the work force, they are more likely to be promoted than their male counterparts as well.The real gap, it seems, is not between women and men, but between mothers and child-less women. Leaving a job early on in one’s career or for an extended period of time to have children will impact a women’s salary when she returns to the work force.

As this is the case, I think the government is probably right to extend rights for shared parental leave (though the money put into training will surely be a waste; women who are ambitious and attracted to careers in science, business, and formerly male-dominated sectors aren’t having much trouble pursuing them). But anything legislated from the top-down can only go so far to change cultural opinions that have been in place for centuries about the role of women and the household.

In reality, women’s choice in their private and home lives will be the greatest determinate as to what further changes we see in wage gaps. It seems there’s evidence that good economic climates actually lead more women to stay at home with their kids rather to go out and get jobs – at the same time, we are witnessing an increase in stay-at-home-dads, which, most likely, has multiple reasoning to it: more women are demanding to work, and more men feel comfortable making the choice to stay home.

Either way, it seems there is no obvious discrimination between men and women when they enter the work place; as far the element of motherhood is concerned, we should be less focused on the numbers and far more focused on ensuring that women are not being socially pressured, either way, to make any decision that is not completely their own.

Why we should cut alcohol and tobacco taxes and why we can’t

The socioeconomic profile of drinkers and smokers across countries are similar. Smoking and drinking is more prevalent amongst the less fortunate, the disadvantaged and the uneducated. In the UK, it is no different. Hiscock, Bauld, Amos & Platt (2012) found that smoking rates were four times higher amongst the disadvantaged versus the more affluent (60.7% versus 15.3% – the factors that determined disadvantage included unemployment, income, housing tenure, car availability, lone parenting and an index of multiple deprivation).

Fone, Farewell, White, Lyons & Dunstan (2013) found that “respondents in the most deprived neighbourhoods were more likely to binge drink than in the least deprived (adjusted estimates: 17.5% versus 10.6%…)”. Clearly, the incidence of these taxes falls disproportionately on the disadvantaged.

People often smoke and drink for pleasure; this means that these taxes stifle those with fewer resources from attaining pleasure. Conversely, affluent people generally have less trouble substituting consumption goods or in quitting substance use altogether. This prevention of stress alleviation and pleasure attainment will be reflected in sub-potential labour productivity.

The Biopsychosocial model of health suggests that any biological health benefits could be offset by the emotional and financial strain that these taxes induce. The situation is worse for those who are both addicted and poor since they substitute consumption even less than their poor, non-addicted counterparts (thereby reducing their consumption of other important goods). This simultaneously deprives their dependents (quite often children).

A primary concern is that the increase in smoking and drinking will cause several negative externalities (especially in the form of increased healthcare costs). One should consider that, if a drinker or a smoker is aware of the threat of liver failure or lung cancer and yet they choose to ignore it, it is ultimately their choice, their body and their health. A certain degree of respect must be afforded to choice especially since we cannot fully empathise with others.

However, one’s disregard for one’s own health often incurs costs for taxpayers whilst, personally, there are negligible financial costs. In this sense, many may feel disinclined to take care of their health as they might have if treatments weren’t free. So whilst the NHS is still around in its current form, it makes (some, albeit limited) sense to heavily tax alcohol and tobacco. Alternatively, a healthcare system that is at least partially privatised (e.g healthcare vouchers) would enable lower taxation of the disadvantaged and impoverished.