I have spent (undoubtedly too much) time today struggling with a new article from the tobacconistas at the University of California, San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, a group of scholars funded by tobacco taxes, which publishes research calling for more…..(you guessed it)…..tobacco taxes.
But not only more taxes: “The California Tobacco Control Program…has adopted a comprehensive approach designed to change social norms rather than a frontal attack designed to market cessation services directly to tobacco users. According to key planning documents for the program, this ‘social norm change’ approach seeks ‘to indirectly influence current and potential future tobacco users by creating a social milieu and legal climate in which tobacco becomes less desirable, less acceptable, and less accessible.’”
Or, in other words: the state taking smokers’ money to fund university professors who have the state’s sanction to bully law-abiding smokers.
Trouble is: how do you measure the results? I previously tangled with these folks’ research in 2006, when I opposed an increase to the California tobacco tax, and discussed all the costs of an expanded anti-tobacco nanny-state. Well, the UCSF scholars have now designed an esoteric econometric model to capture the effects of the California Tobacco Control Program, established in 1989.
I have always been discontented with social scientists’ “physics envy”: ramming imprecise social data through highly complex functions. For example, how does anyone really know how much people smoke, especially when high tobacco taxes drive much of the trade underground? How can you really allocate precise health care costs to smoking, given all the other sins we bring on ourselves?
And what if “some types of expenditures in any given year are unlikely to change cigarette consumption immediately but will affect it over a longer period,…..because successful cessation is a process that usually takes many years and multiple quit attempts,’ as the article states? Won’t the model run away from reality pretty quickly, no matter how well the social scientists try to specify it?
Not according to the UCSF scholars: The article concludes that for a minor investment of $1.8 billion (in constant 2004 dollars) in the California Tobacco Control Program between the fiscal year 1989-90 and FY 2003-04, $86 billion of personal health spending was saved.
But the model doesn’t quite work right. It estimates that one pack of cigarettes contributes to an annual health cost of $27, whereas the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates less than $7 per pack (as cited in the article).
As well as this extraordinarily high estimate, the estimate of overall savings has a very wide range: $28 billion to $151 billion (95% confidence interval). Plus, this is the total over a decade and a half. The mid-point estimate of the final year’s savings was $6.3 billion (7.3% of the total), which is less than 4% of California’s 2004 health spending of $166 billion.
That’s nothing to sneeze at, I suppose, but is it really enough to take the risk of inviting even more government control over our “social norms”? Certainly, according one of the scholars: If spending on tobacco control were hiked up to the level he prefers, California could “virtually eliminate smoking within 5 years”.
Like we’ve eliminated crack cocaine, car theft, and armed robbery, I suppose. If only government cures were as effective as they say.