The Straw Man

Posted 26th October 2015 by Dave Cross
Drakeford’s proposals for vaping in Wales were put before the Assembly’s committee for Health and Social Care. It gave him a platform to continue his crusade without being taken to task over his lack of evidence to support the plans. No bales of substance, just feelings being waved around like ears of corn.

At the committee meeting, rather than presenting some facts, he opened up with the full horror of what he would have liked to have seen take place: “We as a Welsh government were very supportive of the position taken by UK ministers ‘that electronic cigs should be regulated as a medicine’.” He lamented that UK Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt’s position was overturned by the European parliament. No equivocation, this was outright support for the notion of a de facto ban – an idea he still clings to despite all of the evidence that has come to light since the initial proceedings in the creation of the Tobacco Products Directive (TPD).

“If they had succeeded there would be no need for the proposals put forward in this bill. They would have been regulated as a medicine and the dangers that are potentially there from them being used in a recreational way would not apply,” he added. He is opposed to you vaping in Wales, full stop. Fine to use it as a medicine, when it clearly isn’t one, but not fine to use as an on-going hobby once someone has decided you have given up cigarettes for good.

He was clear that he feels the mood in the UK government is still bent towards a prohibitionary stance: “There are still important things in the TPD that we will make sure happen and we are working closely with UK ministers to ensure they do happen.” Labour? Conservatives? Currently the will to legislate crosses party boundaries and he cited the support of Plaid Cymru at the outset of the TPD.

“I don’t think the policy position has changed in principle as UK ministers were very clear in their advice during the coalition period that they believe that ecigarettes should be regulated as a medicine and not as a consumer product.”

Disdain

Of note was the despondency in his voice when asked about the timeline: “It is for UK ministers to take forward the implementation, which is due for May 2016, but that date may be difficult to achieve given the level of [pause] challenge [eyes to heaven] to the TPD from the tobacco industry and from the electronic cigarettes industry.”

In Drakefordland, laws are things not to be challenged because they are poorly designed or pay little heed to evidence. The citizens of Drakefordland object to (what he sees as) the evil and corrupt machinations of big business. He lumps electronic cigarettes with the tobacco lobby when he stated: “The TPD is in front of the European courts because of a challenge by Totally Wicked, an ecig manufacturer, and Philip Morris & BAT, who are seeking further to undermine the protections offered to the public under the TPD.” For him the TPD is only flawed in that it doesn’t go far enough.

Worse, he is disgusted by those who would argue in favour of the continuation of a more relaxed regime (as we currently benefit from): “It was a pretty shocking set of evidence I heard members of this committee getting from witnesses earlier in the process,” as we detailed on the 14th October. “Who argued that the TPD should be weakened and that the protections it currently provides, which are far short of the ones the UK government originally had hoped for, that those protections should be weakened further.”

He isn’t alone.

Advertising and flavours

Alun Davies AM is a confused individual. One minute he was damning the whole ecig industry because of something he must have seen near his hometown once. The next he was hitting Drakeford for his lack of evidence. Hitting with a damp sock in the style of a small child suffering from influenza.

“I certainly don’t think that [the calls for less regulation] was impressive evidence er, er, I must say,” stuttered Davies. Mapping out the feelings of the committee, after hearing the strong pro-vaping presentations, he shockingly added: “I think that most of us would like to see the TPD established as it is today or, or, or in fact strengthened.”

While Drakeford trots out the straw man arguments linked to The Gateway Effect and Normalisation (the former roundly debunked by his own government’s research last week), Davies is a man afraid of advertising and flavours.

“One of the things that concerns me about the growth of ecigarettes is the advertising which appears, to me, to be aimed at a youth market, a young market,” states Davies as though it is a fact. All advertising is aimed at children as far as Davies is concerned, but what about the sexualised adverts? The ones promoting oral sex like a Cadbury’s Flake? They must be aimed at children too.

His bumbling continued: “And it doesn’t appear to me, you know, we hear the industry saying this is a means of, um, enabling and helping people to give up smoking and it’s a tool if you like to be used in smoking cessation, but the advertising we see is saying something different, that this is an entirely harmless product that is, and it certainly appears to me, to be targeted at a youth market, from seeing some of the advertising that I’ve seen and the flavourings and the rest of it.”

Harmless? Targeted at youth? Let us remind ourselves that Davies is a grubby individual who is not one for sticking to facts or following the rules. The politician was sacked from a post last year for his “disgraceful”, “inappropriate” and “poorly judged” behaviour. A man with a track record in poor judgement and “not... a fit and proper person to hold elected office” is just what Welsh vapers do not need.

Balance

Like Davies, Drakeford is a man of mixed messages: “This is not a bill that bans ecigs, it promotes their use in harm reduction.” So the person who says the TPD doesn’t go far enough, repeatedly raises the spectres of gateway and normalisation and raises his eyebrows to a legal challenge doesn’t hope for a ban? No, it’s all about his keyword “balance”, the word he hopes makes it into the news soundbites.

“The bill aims to strike the right balance between capturing the positive potential ecigarettes have to reduce harm, and I recognise that, while working to reduce the risks that they pose to wider public health.” Balance, you see? He cites the British Medical Journal: “Where there is uncertainty of risks the precautionary principle should prevail. And that has been my position all the way through.”

To evidence this position he likens vaping to fracking with regards the lack of science to prove the danger presently available. To justify a precautionary approach he says that if we suspect there is a danger but can’t prove it yet we must not allow it. But this is argumentum ad ignorantiam, as the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! If we called for the ban of red Smarties because we fear research might prove they are dangerous in the future we would be called all sorts of names.

“The same article went on to say that,” he continued, “in the case of public health, in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof has to lie with those who argue that no harm exists.” But how can this be the case if the likes of Drakeford automatically discount any evidence coming from these sources because they are linked to the product? It is a logical Catch 22 designed to ensure they can do what they want without having to justify it with reason or science. The burden of proof is on those who would seek to implement a partial or de facto ban not the other way around when evidence for the efficacy of vaping is already extensive.

Davies agrees with him but sought further confirmation in light of the overwhelming evidence presented previously in support of vaping: “I don’t disagree with the analysis, I think intuitively I would accept and see where you’re coming from. The problem I have is that the evidence doesn’t necessarily sustain that intuitive approach and when I approach this issue I have no issue with the proposal in the bill – how would you respond to the suggestion that in fact the evidence isn’t split neatly 50/50? That the evidence we have received is quite clear that by reducing the ability for people to use ecigarettes, that by restricting their place in society if you like and the rest of it, what you aren’t doing is balancing harm...what you’re actually doing is creating harm today by making it more difficult for people to give up using tobacco products and therefore the approach you are taking isn’t precautionary but one which creates harm to people today?”

At which point Drakeford ducks out: “I’ve heard those arguments, but I think on that particular issue I’ll ask Doctor Hussey to take that point.” Of course you will because you know that you have nothing of substance to “balance” it with.

Doctor Ruth Hussey is the soon-to-be-retiring Chief Medical Officer for Wales. She is a professional that has also ignored evidence in order to sustain here position that e-cigarettes “normalise smoking.”

So of course Drakeford would ask her to reply given her opposition to vaping: “Research demonstrates that e-cigarettes are being used by young people who have never smoked," she told the BBC in April. “We should be doing everything we can to prevent a new generation becoming addicted to nicotine.”

Everything We Can

This isn’t balanced debate grounded in science and data, it is an ideological mission using the twisting of words an influence in order to reach an end goal. She fell back on the ‘it took us decades to work out the harm from tobacco’ line of logic. It isn’t an argument with substance – it is one based on feelings. She feels there may be a problem, she isn’t willing to accept industry data and ignores the studies carried out by ASH. Worse, she glibly brushes off the biggest and most important study to date.

“We’ve had the report from Public Health England where they estimate the safety...and it is very much an estimate,” she says as if to discount it. You can discount an estimate if it is saying something is 5, 10 or 25% safer – but you can’t ignore an estimate of 95%. It’s illogical, blinkered and ignorant. She believes that the PHE figure should be balanced by other opinions and yet there is nothing scientific to balance it out with – again, she is going with nothing more than a gut feeling. No evidence, no facts, just narrow-minded dogma.

These people are either voted in by us or appointed by those people. When they willingly ignore all the evidence presented to them in order to follow thought their own personal agenda, what do we do? Adults like flavours, smokers need marketing to target them, the gateway effect is a myth and the normalisation fear is a joke – all things that these people would seek to prohibit given the opportunity. The solution does not seem to be by going through the proper channels and presenting evidence if this committee is anything to go by. Will vapers embrace civil disobedience as the next step? Is that what this comes to?


 Dave Cross
Article by Dave Cross
Freelance writer, physicist, karateka, dog walker