What is happening here?
First, this hostility has nothing to do with bad science or improper influence. Tobacco companies, major vaping companies and industry consultants produce very high quality scientific data. Much of this data captures the harm caused by cigarettes and shows how that harm could be reduced. Their regulatory science must convince skeptical regulators and withstand public, professional and legal scrutiny for signs of manipulation. Today, the science of the tobacco industry must and generally is credible.
Second, several companies are indeed trying to influence the debate on the evolution of the tobacco and nicotine market. But it’s in a direction that would be Well for public health. With variable assurance, companies want to diversify from combustible products to much safer incombustible nicotine products and from nicotine companies to nicotine-free companies. They would like to discuss policy frameworks that would speed things up. Anti-tobacco activists do not like this argument. It involves a future for their nemesis, Big Tobacco, and a diversion from their path to the “nicotine-free society,” a utopian ideal typical of the war on drugs. Rather than confront the science head-on, they would rather the arguments not be made or not heard.
Third, their cause is served by framing the issue of tobacco and nicotine in the simplistic Manichaean certainties of good and evil. It makes the stories easier. It supports a well-worn narrative that depicts a predatory industry hooking teenagers into lifetime possession of an addictive drug. It sells well, even if it’s a farcical oversimplification and misunderstanding of how nicotine use actually works. It also means that tobacco control benefits from “white hat bias,” in which embarrassingly poor science escapes scrutiny and challenge. The result has been a steady depreciation of the value of tobacco control science.
Fourth, the deeper reason is that tobacco control activists need an enemy. They frame their work in warlike language, and leaders had their formative experiences in the tobacco wars of the last century. The Tobacco-Free Kids Campaign now uses the slogan “Fighting the toughest fights in 25 years”. Waging war is what they do, even if it is done more and more at the expense of public health. This is why the WHO and others cling to the principle that there is an irreconcilable conflict between the interests of tobacco companies and public health. That way, there will always be a battle, they will always have the prestige of war heroes, and there will always be money, conferences and whole institutions dedicated to the fight. But continued belligerence will leave us in a slow stalemate. If there is going to be a war, can we please make it a united front against sickness and death and not a repeat of the battles of the last century?