Thursday, June 28, 2007

Science, prejudice & smoking

Ryo Nakajima in the Review of Economic Studies (subscription required) considers the role of ‘peer effects’ on the decision to smoke among teenagers. To what extent do teens smoke because their friends smoke? This is an important question since one quarter of US youth are smokers when they finish school. You could guess that peer group effect matter quite a lot and that is what this US study finds. The peer effects are particularly strong within genders and within particular racial groups.

We know that smoking behaviour varies markedly by gender and by race. Price elasticities are lower for girls than boys and much lower for whites than for black teenagers. One explanation for this is based on the strength of peer group interactions. Nakajima finds that peer interactions are stronger within genders and within racial groups.

Tax increases have very significant effects on smoking by youth and a ‘multiplier effect’ is found because of peer interactions. An increase in price causes reduced use and this reduced use, in turn, contributes to a further reduction because of reduced peer effects. The multiplier is more than 1.5.

Meanwhile there have been some foolish responses by the health industry to the decision of Phillip Morris to introduce a smokeless cigarette – the ‘Heatbar. This heats cigarettes without burning the tobacco – it is claimed to be much safer.

Quit Victoria’s acting director Suzie Stillman urges the Federal Government to introduce a licensing system for all tobacco products. "Without this system, the tobacco industry will continue to use the Australian public as laboratory rats for their latest gimmicks."

Cancer Council Victoria director Professor David Hill said the technology was part of the industry's long-term strategy to portray tobacco products as fashionable and desirable to the young. "If the proposal is indeed technically legal, Philip Morris seem to have issued an invitation to government to respond with appropriate legislation or regulation."

I strongly disagree with the ethic expressed here. About 3.5 million Australians continue to smoke cigarettes – a very dangerous form of behavior. The best thing these people can do is to quit smoking but many seem unable to do this. Attempts to come up with a safer fag should be looked at and considered rationally.

Blind prejudice has no role here – it may only condemn committed smokers to unnecessary early deaths. One way of reducing the crippling damage caused by cigarette smoking is to induce companies like Phillip Morris to seek healthy substitutes.

Smoking cigarettes is not sinful – it is very dangerous. Any attempt to reduce the damage - whether by quitting or by coming up with safer alternatives such as smokeless tobacco, nicotine replacement therapies, electronic cigarettes and perhaps the Heatbar - should be given a hearing.


Anonymous said...

How does it feel to know the people on your side are irrational fanatics?

hc said...

There is a wrong presumption here.