The Rhetoric of Policy Levers

In the end, policymakers face a complicated calculus. How much of an increase in total smoking are they willing to accept in exchange for some of that smoking to come from lower-risk e-cigarettes? Regulation of e-cigarettes (i.e. restricting their use in the same way as is common for traditional cigarettes) is likely to mitigate any possible increase in demand, but it may also limit the number of smokers switching from traditional cigarettes. The health risks are murky, the demand effects are murky, and even if both were known, the right policy decisions would not be clear.

-Emily Oster, What Do We Really Know About the Safety of E-Cigarettes?

I draw your attention to this quote not to debate the merit of e-cigarette regulation, or to criticize the quality of Oster’s article. It’s well researched and well written. I quote the concluding paragraph because I was struck by how Oster decided to frame the question.

Some things to note:

  • She did not ask whether people ought to be allowed to assess these risks for themselves.
  • Her implied audience is not made up of people trying to decide whether or not they should start using e-cigarettes.
  • She does not imply that her audience ought to advise their loved ones and acquaintances for or against the use of e-cigarettes.

Oster instead addresses “policymakers”, though the way she addresses them implies to me that she does not believe most of her actual audience is constituted of such people.

And her framing of the risk analysis of e-cigarettes is entirely in terms of reducing things like overall smoking rates and bad health outcomes, regardless of whether smoking rates reflect personal preferences and health outcomes come about from reasonably informed personal choices. In fact, she talks specifically about attempting to “mitigate any possible increase in demand” should e-cigarettes reduce the cost of smoking, as if an “increase in demand” were something like the rotation of the planets, rather than the adding up of freely made individual human choices.

Of course, my analysis of her rhetoric is dripping in a rhetoric of my own. But I’d like to leave it at this for now; it really is her framing, more than any substantive point she made, that I wanted to draw attention to.

6 thoughts on “The Rhetoric of Policy Levers

  1. My worry is that e-cigs are such a benign way to intake nicotine that it will ramp up tolerances and people will be slurpin’ down a few cartridges a day. My ‘nudge’ approach would be to mandate an additive in e-cigs that makes ingestion over a certain high threshold cause explosive diarrhea or something like that. I would like a similar initiative for diet coke.

    1. OK, first: that is both horrifying and hilarious.

      Second: I don’t think that counts as a nudge. Nudges involve setting defaults, but still allowing people to change those defaults if they wish.

      Third: you seem to be operating inside a frame that is the same or similar to Oster’s.

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