Victory for vaping

The report from Public Health England is highly significant.  A major health body has concluded after research that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than smoking tobacco cigarettes.  PHE is an executive agency sponsored by the Department of Health.  It asked a team of experts to conduct an independent review of the evidence, and the findings are unequivocal.

They conclude there is no evidence that e-cigarettes are a gateway to lead children or non-smokers into smoking.  On the contrary, they find that almost all of the 2.6 million vapers in Britain are current or ex-smokers using e-cigarettes to help them quit or to keep them from reverting.

They found that increasing numbers, now nearly half the population, believe that vaping is as harmful or more harmful than are cigarettes, even though it is estimated to be only up to 5% as harmful.  This could be because the anti-vapers trying to have it banned indoors or in public places have persuaded them that it is harmful.  The report makes a telling estimate:

At the moment, 80,000 people [in England] die every year as a result of cigarette smoking. If everybody who was smoking switched to e-cigarettes that would reduce to about 4,000 deaths a year. That’s the best estimate at the moment. It may well be much, much lower than that.

It also makes it plain that e-cigarettes are an effective means of helping people to quit.  Those who oppose vaping because “it looks like smoking” are missing the point.  It is probably because it resembles smoking that it works.  Users put it with their hands to their mouth and produce vapour that looks like smoke, while giving them the nicotine kick.  They don’t have to quit doing any of this, but the harmful cigarette smoke with its tars and noxious gases is absent.

The report suggests that e-cigarettes are a “game changer” in public health.  It is interesting that many of the big tobacco companies have bought e-cigarette companies, clearly spotting where the future is going.  There will be some who campaign against the acceptability of vaping because they claim it normalizes smoking.  This is not only silly, but threatens the most effective method to help smokers to quit.  It is not smoking that e-cigarettes normalize; they normalize giving up smoking.

There’s a fairly simple answer to this question

Over in The Guardian there’s a question asked that rather horrifies us:

What is the correct number of children each of us should have? It’s a question to which we urgently need an answer – made all the more necessary by the latest reported figures, which show that Britain now has more families with four or more children than at any time since the 1970s. According to the European statistics agency, Eurostat, there’s a growing trend for large families – even though the average family size is getting smaller.

Should this be celebrated, or condemned? We need some guidance, surely. If not, how are today’s young people of childbearing age ever going to work out what to do?

The horror coming from the fact that if there is some “right” number of children that each couple, or woman, should have, then obviously there has to be someone, somewhere, who decides what that number is. And then, naturally, some system of enforcement. And when there’s enforcement of anything like this we get to the horrors of those Chinese and or Indian systems of forced sterilisations, enforced abortions and the rest. Things that have also happened, on a smaller scale, here in Europe within living memory.

Thus the correct answer to the “how many children should people have?” question is: none of your damn business matey.

The sex industry is now larger than the housebuilding one

Cathering Hakim has a wonderful paper on the sex industry over at the IEA, a paper that contains this delightful fact:

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) estimates that the sex
industry in Britain adds £4.3 billion (US$6.9 billion) per year to the economy
(more than the amount spent on the construction of houses in the first
decade of the 21st century), and adds over 0.4 per cent to national GDP.

Which gives a useful insight into how silly this idea of making the purchase of sex illegal is (the “Swedish Model”). No good at all is going to come from criminalising an economic sector of that size, not when it’s almost entirely the activities of consenting adults making it up.

Our point about prostitution has always been that, however much it may be not to our taste as an activity, it is the actions of consenting adults and as such it’s something that a free and liberal society will leave alone.

Hakim’s paper is worth reading not only for its good sense. It also manages to trample on a number of sacred assumptions common about sexuality:

the plethora of nationally representative sex surveys carried out around the
world in the two decades 1990-2010 greatly increased information on sexual
practices and sexual markets (Wellings et al. 2006). For example, national
surveys show that the vast majority of men and women self-identify and
act as heterosexuals: 97 per cent in Britain, the USA, Australia, Scandinavia
and Western Europe generally. The tiny sexual minorities that are often the
focus of attention in academic sexuality research and journals do not affect
patterns in the majority heterosexual market. The sex survey results
demolished many misconceptions, new and old (Vaccaro 2003; Hakim
2015). One supposed ‘myth’ that was shown to be a continuing solid reality
in the 21st century, long after the contraceptive revolution, is the idea that
men typically have stronger libidos than women (Hakim 2015). Male demand
for sexual entertainments and activity greatly outstrips female sexual interest,
even in liberal cultures. This gives women an edge, although many are still
unaware of it.

Yes, this is a fairly common economic view. If you’re the supplier of something in short supply then you do indeed have an edge over those who are seeking it. The paper’s worth the fun of reading just to see quite so many modern beliefs being discarded as untruths.

The final recommendation we thoroughly agree with: the sex industry should not only remain legal many of the current restrictions upon it should be lifted. but with this paper there’s also great joy in the way that the points are argued.

Can we really decriminalise sex work, globally?

Amnesty International have released a draft policy arguing for global decriminalisation of sex work. As a rule, decriminalisation of consensual actions between individuals that do not directly harm others is something I support. Prioritising the removal of legislation that disproportionately hurts the worst off/most marginalised is top of this agenda. However, wading into an unfamiliar political landscape and applying libertarian principles without care for the consequences is not something I endorse. In this case, I think Amnesty have missed a trick on nuance, in mandating a global recommendation for decriminalisation.

In a previous paper, Amnesty say:

Approaches that categorise all sex work as inherently nonconsensual, actively disempower sex workers; denying them personal agency and autonomy and placing decision-making about their lives and capacity in the hands of the state. They also limit sex workers’ ability to organise and to access protections which are available to others (including under labour laws or health and safety laws).

Arbitrarily broad laws prohibiting organisational aspects of sex work often ban sex workers from working together, renting secure premises, or hiring security or other support staff, meaning that they face prosecution themselves if they try to operate in safety.

This is a sound argument for decriminalisation. Even those who think that we should categorise sex work as nonconsensual should nevertheless see that at least decriminalising it makes it safer (since we can regulate and sex workers can report illegal behaviour without fear of prosecution themselves!).

There are two main criticisms of Amnesty’s plan. One is the fact that they somehow see the needs of buyers as relevant to how we should treat sex workers (i.e. because some clients of sex workers often purchase these services because they would otherwise struggle to enjoy them unpaid, we ought to consider making it easier for them to do so). I sympathise with this concern – nobody has the right to sexual gratification, so the idea of legislating with this in mind just seems bizarre.

But the main reason to be sceptical of Amnesty’s call for decriminalisation globally, is that they don’t appear to have done an awful lot of research to understand whether decriminalisation is right everywhere.

Sure, it’s very likely to be a good idea in the UK and most European nations. We can debate the merits of various regulatory frameworks to put in place once this has gone ahead. For example, despite concerns that decriminalisation would lead to more prostitution, and more visible prostitution, the evidence in New Zealand post-decriminalisation does not support this. From other countries, we see that police are a huge source of violence against sex workers (the study attached to that link is very graphic) and by the admission of police and sex workers themselves, the lack of access to justice for sex workers is a huge problem. If decriminalisation makes any headway in increasing sex workers’ ability to use the legal system to assert their rights, this is a step forward. The BMJ recognises that decriminalisation improves sexual health for sex workers.

But in every other policy debate, we would always consider whether the subject of our enquiry differs depending on the context in which we’re applying it. Do cultural, social, economic and legal differences between countries inform the kind of effect we might expect decriminalisation to have? It is impossible for them not to have a huge impact on the success of decriminalisation.

Consider the example of a country where the stigma attached to sex work includes serious bodily harm to the sex worker by aggrieved members of the community to which they belong. By criminalising sex work on the part of the buyer (commonly known as the ‘Swedish’ model), you increase the incentive for the buyer not to ‘out’ the sex worker, which may actually make the sex worker safer. The example of Cambodia gives us reason to suspect that it isn’t as simple as decriminalising – according to the same source, Cambodia is highly restrictive of women’s sexuality, which indicates that decriminalisation is not going to deliver the benefits we might hope for, and might do much worse if society takes the police’s place.

Imagine a situation in which decriminalisation would actually result in higher people trafficking, masked as sex work to reduce the legal repercussions. Criminalising the practice, either by punishing organisers of sex workers or by criminalising buyers may result in higher welfare for sex workers particularly as it discourages their exploitation. In Sweden, anecdote suggests that traffickers are seeing it as a less profitable place to operate, suggesting that there are some perks to criminalising the purchase of sex whilst not criminalising the sale – this kind of outcome might be appropriate for countries which have particular concerns about people trafficking, or whose current legislation makes it difficult to appropriately address trafficking. Again, though, it raises the worry that this second-best policymaking actually targets the wrong problem and is evidence that Sweden hasn’t got to grips with trafficking and is having to do so via indirect means. We also need to worry whether global trafficking volumes have changed – or just been moved elsewhere, to places where perhaps women don’t have the same degree of access to justice.

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t aim for decriminalisation in the long-term, but to recognise that there are a number of factors which will get in the way of achieving the aim we are pursuing in decriminalising in the first place – advancing the autonomy and, hence, safety, of sex workers. When embarking on a full-scale decriminalisation, perhaps we ought to consider addressing those problems concurrently. Certainly, Amnesty shouldn’t be mandating what the entire world should be doing with such insensitivity to the cultural, economic and legal norms of the various nation states that might alter the consequences of decriminalisation.

Liberalising Immigration is a Win-Win scenario

Draconian immigration rules represent the largest restriction on liberty in the UK today. They restrict the personal and economic potential of millions of people and achieve little in return. How to roll back these limits on freedom? Think tanks have a difficult dilemma. They want to build a reputation as radical thinkers, but at the same time propose moderate policies. Early drafts of this essay argued that Britain should be more open to this or that group, but the truth is that both hard-headed economics and human decency demand wholesale liberalisation.

Immigration restrictions curtail our ability to hire, sell to, befriend and marry the people we want to. People understand this – it’s why people view immigration to their local area much more favourably than on the national level. And they have an enormous economic cost.

The ASI’s namesake argued that the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. Everyone accepts the case for free trade, but that leaves markets incomplete, because non-tradable services (like haircuts) can’t travel across borders. Freeing people to move where they wish would let people go where their talents would be best used. The productivity of someone with an engineering degree – the amount can achieve with their labour – is many times lower in some areas of the developing world than it is in the UK.

The benefits to migrants are best illustrated by the lengths migrants are willing to go to to cross borders. Smugglers charge thousands for passage from Libya to Europe, and the journey is fraught with risk, but hundreds of thousands make the journey anyway. Migration lets people escape poverty, war and authoritarian regimes.

The Mariel Boatlift is an example of this. In 1980, 125000 Cubans fled Castro’s regime, landing in Miami. Their liberation increasing the size of the local labour force by 7% almost overnight. But economists found almost no impact on wages and the labour market.

7% of the UK labour force works out to approximately 2.3m people. The government could auction off permanent residency permits to that many people each year. Such a radical policy would be disruptive. It would have costs, losers as well as winners. But the potential benefits are too colossal to ignore – a Britain where not only workers and jobs but husbands and wives, parents and children, potential pub geezers would not be separated by arbitrary borders.

Theo Clifford is winner of the 18-21 category of the ASI’s ‘Young Writer on Liberty’ competition. You can follow him on @Theo_Clifford, and read his blog at