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EDITORIAL

Our Opinion: Tackle tobacco with education, not regulation

Posted on October 7, 2021

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Taking the coercive approach is frowned upon in the broader substance use disorder recovery community ... Yet the new breed of antismoking advocates seems determined to compel rather than convince."

A federally funded group of academics wants to snuff out tobacco use, but not by developing products or strategies to help smokers quit. Instead, the plan involves wielding government power to take people’s choices away.

Seven researchers coauthored a paper published last month that urges regulators to reduce the density of tobacco retail locations. Making cigarettes and chewing tobacco scarce, they say, will drive down dependence and lead to 2% to 3% fewer users over time.

Joseph G.L. Lee, an assistant professor of health education and promotion at East Carolina University, is the study’s lead author. ECU News Services touted his work in a Monday news release that describes communities with a high concentration of stores that sell cigarettes as “tobacco swamps,” an allusion to the “food swamps” where empty calories are plentiful, but nutritious options are few and far between.

Proponents note the presence of 375,000 tobacco retailers in the U.S., or 27 stores for each McDonald’s restaurant. The release says they “tend to be clustered in lower-income and minority communities,” raising the specter of predatory sales tactics. Numbers don’t lie, but the way they’re marshaled in support of an argument can mislead.

Shops devoted entirely to tobacco products are a niche market. The majority of outlets counted as tobacco retailers are gas station convenience stores. Their ubiquity isn’t surprising in a country with nearly 287 million cars, and their presence in low-income communities is generally welcome.

“Some places have banned tobacco sales in pharmacies, and a few cities have ended almost all tobacco sales,” Lee wrote in an email to The Wilson Times. “Our research provides evidence that reducing the easy availability of tobacco products would likely reduce tobacco use.”

Seven professors contributed to the study, yet no one thought to consult an economist. Cigarettes accounted for 27.1% of convenience store sales in 2019, with other tobacco products providing 7.3% of sales, according to the trade group NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing.

Lee told us tobacco control policies “are not designed to close gas stations or convenience stores.” Perhaps a colleague from the business school could explain the inevitable consequence of wiping a third of sales off the books in a competitive industry with razor-thin margins.

If local governments limit concentration rather than imposing across-the-board bans, those low-income and minority communities will lose convenience stores and the jobs they provide. Taking the smokes out of the mini-mart while licensing sellers across town would displace demand before reducing it.

Lee’s paper, a meta-analysis of 27 studies conducted in eight countries, can be used to justify heavy-handed restrictions. But its recommendations didn’t flow organically from a disinterested statistical examination.

All seven coauthors are members of the ASPiRE Center, a National Institutes of Health-funded research collaborative whose name stands for Advancing Science & Practice in the Retail Environment.

“The center is working to build a scientific evidence base for effective policies in the retail environment to help reduce tobacco use...,” East Carolina explains.

Lee told the Times that authors followed “well established methods designed to minimize the risk of bias in research,” and in fairness, the paper has all the requisite scholarly bona fides. But pardon our skepticism when academics just happen to stumble onto evidence that supports their preordained conclusions. Quite the lucky coincidence.

Here’s a statistic beyond dispute: Tobacco use kills almost a half-million Americans each year and is the nation’s No. 1 preventable cause of death.

Smoking carries fatal consequences, and finding ways to reduce tobacco use is a worthy field of study. We just wish researchers would focus their efforts on education and support, not social engineering.

Taking the coercive approach is frowned upon in the broader substance use disorder recovery community, which lobbies for amnesty and treatment rather than arrests and prison time when people are addicted to opioids, heroin and other hard drugs. Yet the new breed of antismoking advocates seems determined to compel rather than convince.

Lee and his coauthors support policies that pit government against smokers in an adversarial relationship, hiking taxes, playing hide-and-seek with tobacco products and frustrating buyers until they eventually give up.

We favor a partnership where agencies empower people to kick the habit by giving them the grim facts, informing them about harm reduction methods, offering free and low-cost cessation support and respecting their personal autonomy.

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