Saturday, 8 June 2013

Tobacco funding think tanks

A week ago, The Observer reported that the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute for Economic Affairs both accepted funding from 'Big Tobacco'.  Most people, I would have thought, would find this unsurprising.  I certainly did, but more importantly I don't find it particularly shocking or outrageous.
I'm slightly concerned about writing this post, as it could be read as support for the tobacco industry, and some might see it as naive at best in seeing them as having a legitimate role in society.  I want to make it clear that this isn't what I'm suggesting (or even discussing).  I think it's fair to say that the industry has not always accepted responsibility where it might, and I'm of the opinion that if tobacco were discovered today I wouldn't want it to be legal.  However, we are currently living in a country where tobacco is legal and it is important to analyse how people understand policymaking in relation to this issue.  I want to suggest that a black and white, good and evil framework for understanding the issues is unhelpful, and may serve to fuel people's opposition to public health aims.
As a starting point, it's worth noting that the fundamental basis for the industry funding of think tanks being a news story worthy of attention is that there is some concern about transparency: perhaps the ASI and IEA were being secretive about who gives them money, which potentially contradicts WHO guidelines.
I'd certainly want this information to be openly available, for reasons I'll discuss later, but this wasn't actually the tone of the article and people's responses to it.  According to ASH Chief Exec, accepting tobacco funding 'completely undermines' one's position on related policies.  David Nutt remarked in mock-shock on Twitter 'And they're influencing govt policy?'  Neither of these objections is based on the apparent secrecy; they're attacking the more fundamental (rather than procedural) point that the tobacco industry shouldn't influence government policy, however indirectly.
Setting aside the issue of transparency (which admittedly is genuinely serious and raises fundamental questions about the role of business in policymaking), there are two reasons why I'm not perturbed - or at least, don't think this funding is illegitimate or shocking.
First, I've got a bit of a soft spot for corporatist, stakeholder government/decision-making, which probably influences how I start to think about the issue.  This is probably in part a romanticising of beer and sandwiches and life before Thatcherism - and it's certainly a romanticising of the role the tobacco industry has played in policy debates over the years.
However, it does have a sound basis simply because most policy issues have multiple implications and almost infinite possible perspectives, as I've suggested before here and here.  All policy-making is something of a compromise, so it's probably helpful to listen to a range of perspectives and points.  The tobacco industry will obviously defend itself, but then you'd also listen to a public health perspective, or someone with a more critical view of the role of corporations and profit in society.
Now, this might seem in contradiction of the WHO guidance on tobacco and policymaking, but actually what those guidelines talk about is partnership between government and industry, and voluntary codes of regulation.  They don't suggest banning the industry expressing its views as much as actually participating in the drafting of policy.
The second reason I'm not so shocked is that I think I take a slightly different approach to people's motivations.
The tobacco industry, like the alcohol industry, will use liberal (or libertarian) arguments to claim that individual consumers' choices should be respected and it's simply supplying a legal product in a regulated market.  On the other hand, some public health campaigners would characterise big tobacco as 'evil', self-interested and calculating - or even say that 'evil' isn't a strong enough word.
I'm interested here in analysing these ideas of free market liberalism presented by the industry.  I would emphasise at this point that worldviews and ideology aren't neutral, consistent, coherent, objective or independent and impartial.  My worldview is likely to say something about my background and my current activities (though it won't entirely explain them or be consistent with them).  This is partly because I might try to do things that are consistent with some set of values I consider to be important to me.  However, it's also because a worldview is in some senses a rationalisation of where we find ourselves, to help ensure some kind of psychological coherence.*
That people who work for tobacco firms have free market views isn't just a front; it's likely to be both cause and effect of their working for these firms.  It would be hard to work for an industry if you didn't, at some level, believe in some principles that make the tasks you undertake legitimate, even if this is some warped notion of the 'invisible hand' and the magic of the market that sees individuals' selfishness as part of a functioning mechanism that delivers positive outcomes for all.
The think tanks the Observer article mentions have mission statements that fit perfectly with such an outlook on political economy:
            The IEA is the UK's original free-market think-tank, founded in 1955. Our   mission is to improve understanding of the fundamental institutions of a free           society by analysing and expounding the role of markets in solving economic     and social problems.

            The Adam Smith Institute ... works to promote libertarian and free market    ideas ... the Institute is today at the forefront of making the case for free   markets and a free society in the United Kingdom.

I might be being generous, but I would suggest that those working for these think tanks 'genuinely' believe in these principles, rather than seeing themselves as some kind of Trojan Horse or entryists changing the nature of political debate to benefit their sectional interests.  Their acceptance of tobacco money should not be seen as some kind of Faustian pact, because this is not how they would see it.  Rather, it should be understood as the coming together of two similarly-minded actors in the policy debate.
It is not simply because they're taking tobacco money that the IEA and ASI are against increased regulation of the tobacco industry; the tobacco industry supports these particular think tanks because they are against industry regulation to begin with.  The same arguments apply to Labour and the unions, for example.
This is not a one-way causal relationship, as I've already suggested, and as such this is the point where the importance of transparency comes in.  Worldviews are not neutral, objective or impartial; they are particular perspectives, which owe something to the position and experiences of their adherents.  It's not unimportant that free market ideology in this context benefits big tobacco, and so if the argument is coming from this perspective, that might mean something different than if the claim is coming from a public health expert.  If organisations aren't clear about the sources of their funding it makes it more difficult to assess their perspective.
However, this is quite a different thing to considering the view irrelevant or illegitimate.  The public health perspective is equally as partial when it claims that smoking 'brings nothing but bad breath disease & death'.  The questions are about balancing freedom, profit, health, pleasure - and at a societal level, not as an individual, personal decision.
We don't get any closer to a resolution of the issue by framing the debate as a battle of good and evil.  Instead we should debate openly the principles that should underlie tobacco policy, the perceived problems and benefits of smoking and the industry according to these principles, and then assess proposals as potential solutions to these.  We're not helped in this if we see think tanks as amoral puppets of an amoral tobacco industry.
*I'm not saying that we ever achieve this kind of coherence - and crucially, it's not entirely conscious or calculating, just like worldviews themselves.  (Otherwise we wouldn't need analysis; people would just tell us what they think and that would be that.)  This is a common way of looking at how people understand and negotiate the world across the social sciences, not just in psychology.  The idea of habitus outlined by Bourdieu and others is one example.

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