Monday, 20 January 2014

Day 200: The rational decision to smoke. Again.

"True believer" is a term I have more often heard applied to those who want to constrain the tobacco industry than to those who actively defend it. But it would be hard to deny that today's expert witness at the Montreal tobacco trials, Professor Kip Viscusi, is at the very least a "true believer" in free-market economics of the Cato Institute variety.

A long-time industry supporter 

Mr. Viscusi is well known within tobacco control circles as a result of his wide repertoire of positions against measures to reduce smoking. He was, for example, an early proponent of the idea that smoking provided society with a death benefit, as smokers died before they could collect their pensions. He has described smoking bans as an over-reaction. He once quipped that "People are no more addicted to cigarettes than they are to lawyers or the opera."

He has defended the industry in the court of public opinion, and also in courts of law. "Ten to fifteen" trials, he said today, which seemed a rather imprecise number for an economist trying to make an impression about the exactitude of his responses. These court appearances included the landmark U.S. Department of Justice proceedings before Justice Gladys Kessler

He seems a self-confident witness. He is tall, and holds himself taller. He does not pull his punches. He is not shy to denounce those whose views rival his own. (Paul Slovic's methods were described as as "trickery" and a “thoroughly dishonest survey approach.”)

But a relative newcomer to the Quebec

Economists, as the saying goes, can supply on demand. Mr. Viscusi might have been an obvious person for the companies to bring into this trial, but he was a late addition to their list of expert witnesses.

It was only as the plaintiffs neared the end of their "proof" last March 6 that Justice Riordan agreed to the companies' request for two additional expert reports on warnings.  Mr. Viscusi was the choice of JTI-Macdonald and Rothmans, Benson and Hedges. Mr. Stephen Young, who was chosen by Imperial Tobacco, will testify in March.

This is not, however, Mr. Viscusi's first appearance in a Quebec Court. He was part of Loto Quebec's defence against claims from compulsive gamblers that it had not provided warnings on its video terminals. (Exhibit 40495.1).

The voire dire

Mr. Viscusi's career success takes several pages to summarize: his 39 page curriculum vitae (Exhibit 40493) is only slightly shorter than his expert report (Exhibit 40494).

Over the past four decades, he has occupied senior positions at several prominent American universities: Vanderbilt (where he is currently "University Distinguished Professor of Law, Economics, and Management"), Duke University, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, as well as his alma mater, Harvard University.

He has published two dozen books, and over 300 academic articles. His advice has been sought from such diverse organizations as the Environmental Protection Agency, the tobacco industry and (...sigh...) Health Canada.

These and other accomplishments were swiftly highlighted by JTI-Macdonald counsel, Guy Pratte, before he asked Justice Riordan to qualify Mr. Viscusi as "an expert on how people make decisions on risky and uncertain situations, and as to the role and sufficiency of information including warnings to consumers when making the decision to smoke." 

The plaintiffs did not contest this qualification, but they did use their opportunity to comment on his eligibility to put some framing around the testimony that would follow. Mr. André Lespérance showed that the report just filed in this trial was strongly rooted in earlier (1988) work done for lawfirms defending U.S. tobacco companies, and that the studies he uses were originally put in place by those legal teams. (Exhibit 1678)

Mr. Lespérance also suggested to Justice Riordan that Mr. Viscusi's report went well beyond the scope originally set for his appearance and that this was a manoeuvre intended to preclude the plaintiffs' rebuttal. On cue, Simon Potter acknowledged that the defence teams would ask that the rebuttal report prepared by Professor Paul Slovic should not be receivable.

"The Role of Warnings and Other Health Information in Smoking Decisions in Canada" 

Although the ideas are so outside conventional thinking that even a neutral observer might find them hard to accept, Mr. Viscusi's expert report (Exhibit 40494) is easy to read and his elaboration today was easy to follow.
Kip Viscusi says the true risks of smoking
are lower than people believe them to be. 

Smoking is not as dangerous as people think

"Peoples' risk beliefs substantially exceed scientists estimates of what these risks actually are." 

Mr. Viscusi has repeated surveys on smokers' perceptions of risk, and the results of these have   convinced him that the true health consequences of smoking are far below those that are believed by consumers. By extrapolating  from previous surveys, he believes this has been the case in Canada and the United States since at least the late 1960s.

Smokers make a rational decision to smoke.

People make the decision to smoke "with rational decision making of the usual economic fashion, in which costs and benefits are weighed against each other." Even if people "don’t sit down and calculate these probabilities" they "do respond in a sensible, reasonable way to risk."  It is not necessary to have all the information in order to make the same decision that would result if all the information were available.

Those who smoke have beliefs that smoking is less harmful than do non-smokers, which accounts for the fact that they are more likely to weigh the benefits of smoking as higher than the risks.

Young people are even more likely to exaggerate the risks

Mr. Viscusi said that young people were even more likely to think that smoking was harmful than older people. They have all the information they need to make a rational choice: it is only because "not everyone at the age or 11 is making a smart decision"  that governments put age bans into effect.

Earlier, bigger or better warnings would not have reduce smoking

"Consumers have had adequate information – both concerning particular diseases or particular incidence rates or constituents of smoke – to assist them in making rational smoking decisions." 

There would have been no reduction in tobacco use if health warnings had been put on packages sooner, or had been more detailed: "Nobody would be deterred who had not already been deterred by their beliefs." 

To the contrary, more accurate information about the risks of smoking would lead to more smokers, as it would result in smokers reducing their beliefs in the harms of smoking (by bringing them down to a more accurate but lower level).

He found proof of this in the historic smoking rates in Canada. If warnings had an effect, the smooth and steady decline would have had "discontinuous jumps" when warnings were introduced in the 1970s, or when modified in the late 1980s, early 1990s and again in 2000. (He did not explain why smoking rates did not rise at such times, consistent with his theory.)

Had warnings been effective at reducing smoking,
an effect would have shown on prevalence
data, says Mr. Viscusi.
Modern-day graphic warnings do not provide information content, but are more aligned with efforts to stigmatize smoking. "I think the overall intent is to decrease the social acceptability of smoking by increasing the disgust that people experience when they look at a package of cigarettes."

Toxic constituent labelling not useful

Information on toxic constituents would make no difference to smokers' behaviour, he said, as several levels of information were required before someone could work through the health consequences of any particular dose of every compound.  "There is no reason to believe that anyone would make a sensible judgement (from constituent labels)" 

Besides, the simple presence of carcinogens does not mean that a substance is harmful: "Scientists have said there are several dozen carcinogens in a cup of coffee – but coffee does not pose a risk." Who knew?

Insincere smokers

The fact that people report regretting their smoking behaviour does not mean that they were not making a rational choice at the moment they started to smoke said Mr. Viscusi.

He likened it to having bought a lottery ticket, and then regretting having done so when not winning the lottery. "A large percentage will have an adverse effect. and you would expect that they will regret that they were unlucky in terms of a health outcome." 

He cast doubt on reports of smokers' desire to quit, attributing survey results to insincere responses. Smokers, he said, have "learned to deflect criticism about their smoking by saying 'sure I should quit - just get off my back!' "  He pointed to the tendency of smokers who say they want to quit to drop out of cessation programs as evidence that they "don’t mean what they say."

In the end, Mr. Pratte did not need long with this witness. By mid-afternoon, after about 3 hours of questions on his report, Mr. Pratte announced that he had no further questions.

The plaintiff's cross-examination, which Mr. Lespérance started this afternoon, will finish tomorrow.

Mr. Viscusi's testimony will end on Tuesday. The last two days of the week will be taken up with a presentation by psychiatrist Dominique Bourget.