Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
In a liberal democracy, citizens, companies, non-profit organisations, charities and universities can all proclaim their opinion on matters of public policy. All these arguments seek to influence the political outcome, desiring that their holders’ view prevails and is etched into legislation – or lack thereof.
The University of Bath’s Tobacco Control Research Group has published a new paper in PLOS ONE. One of the authors commented: “Governments around the world need to wise up to when the industry is lying and protect policy development from the vested interests of the tobacco companies.” The paper finds that there are four main arguments used by tobacco companies in policy discussions:
These are not ‘tobacco tactics’ – unique to the tobacco industry. The first argument – a wariness of unintended consequences – is made by consequentialists, who believe policies should be judged by their results. This concept of unintended consequences was popularised by sociologist Robert K. Merton. Public health is not a special area of policy, where unanticipated results are ignored. The second argument may be employed by modern politicians, with the demand by Blair’s Labour government for “evidence-based policy making”.
The third argument cannot conceivably be part of the tobacco companies’ “diverse repertoire of tactics”. It is a requirement of the rule of law that the government obeys the law and binding treaties. Similar complaints were raised by Jonathan Gornall, a freelance journalist writing for the BMJ. In Under the influence: Scotland’s battle over alcohol pricing, Gornall quotes Evelyn Gillan, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland:
It was, she said, “deplorable” that powerful corporate interests were able to delay life saving [sic] legislation approved through the democratic process.
Ms Gillan ignores that courts, considering whether new laws conform to existing legislation, constitutions and treaties, are part of this democratic process. Indeed, a liberal democracy is a country where the elected government does not possess absolute power. These companies have every right to confirm if minimum unit pricing and standardised packaging laws are actually legal: governments must follow the law. Finally, the fourth argument may be undertaken by classical liberals, who generally prefer voluntary action to mandatory legislation.
It is not surprising that tobacco and alcohol manufacturers lobby on their own behalf. However, naked self-interest is hardly influential, so these companies utilise better arguments. In the BMJ article, Ms Gillan says that Labour and Conservative members “often quoted industry arguments”. The articles misunderstand basic debate: arguments are used by participants; they don’t belong to them. This is the genetic fallacy, enveloped in the demand of public health advocates for politicians to listen to no-one but themselves.