Should Cigarette Brands Be Hidden?

Australian cigarette packaging
Australian cigarette packaging

This week, the UK government ended a consultation on whether cigarette companies should continue to be allowed to use branding and packaging to make their products more attractive. I’ve read and listened to some of the coverage, trying to decide as to whether this strategy will be effective in cutting smoking, but so far few facts have emerged from the noise of debate. Anti-smoking campaigners argue passionately for the ban, while “libertarian” free market advocates claim it will have no effect, and stifle freedom.

My heart is with the ban; the tobacco industry has proven itself to be the worst kind of scum, successfully denying any link with cancer for decades after 1950s research revealed the risks (indeed, denial of the tobacco-cancer link until the 1990s was a favourite moron argument, paralleling today’s denial of climate change). Only when huge class action suits threatened the industry’s very existence did it turn away from lying about its product’s health risks. Tobacco is by far the most dangerous of all recreational drugs, linked with an estimated 18% of all deaths in British over-35s, and 5% of all hospital admissions. My libertarian sympathies, also, aren’t aroused by the prospect of forcing the removal of branding from packaging. Liberty is for people, not corporations, and nobody is (yet) suggesting that people shouldn’t be allowed to buy or smoke tobacco (I’d strongly opposes any outright ban on tobacco sale or consumption). The idea that anyone is losing liberty by having to buy Marlboro in an olive rather than red-and-white pack is ludicrous (yet this kind of argument is a common piece of “libertarian” nonsense).

Would a branding ban reduce smoking? That seems less clear. Its advocates seem to have more passion than facts at their disposal. A comparison with the illegal part of the recreational drugs business suggests that branding isn’t a pre-requisite for product popularity. Highly popular drugs, such as MDMA (pure Ecstasy crystals) and cocaine are typically delivered in small plastic bags, or neatly folded up in a old lottery ticket. Cannabis is sold in a plastic bag or clingfilm. There are some approximations to branding: batches of Ecstasy tablets can usually be identified by size, colour, shape and stamp. Mitsubishi pills were popular a decade or so ago, and popular brands like Apple and Nike have taken over more recently. Rumours of a particularly good batch of pills would make a particular brand popular; but in a black market with no trademark protections, if “Apples” are all the rage, manufacturers will quickly begin producing fake Apples. Cannabis is “branded” based on its strain; a grower who creates a hybrid to be proud of will give it a memorable name – classics include White Widow and Orange Bud. But once the seeds are in the public domain, all brand control is lost.

Due to their illegality, cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy can’t be effectively branded; but their popularity seems undented nonetheless. For decades (millennia in the case of cannabis), these drugs have only increased in popularity. It seems that branding, rather than increasing overall market size, simply increases the ability of corporations to control the market. To me, that seems like a bad thing – corporations create brand loyalty in order to ultimately reduce consumer choice and dominate the market.

It seems that brands contribute to the monopolisation of markets, reducing competitiveness and choice. The huge variety of recreational drugs for sale, and the endless scientific innovation in the field contrasts favourably with the increasing lack of innovation in legal markets, where corporations, having established dominance, get better returns from crushing competition than from investing in research and development. This is the classic contradiction of Capitalism; by succeeding, it dies.

On this basis, branding is the ultimate enemy of the free market. Can anyone claim that McDonalds or Budweiser have led to improved choice or quality? Brand psychology is hugely sophisticated, and we’re all susceptible, however aware we are. It’s why Brad Pitt sells more movie tickets than a brilliant, but unknown actor. It’s why in a strange city, I gravitate to Starbucks – it’s not the best coffee, but it’s familiar and I know what to expect.

Perhaps libertarians, rather than defending the right of British American Tobacco to lure us with fancy packaging, should be welcoming the tobacco experiment, and calling for its extension. In a sane world, perhaps adults would be presented with a choice of unbadged tobacco, alongside unbadged cannabis, cocaine and Ecstasy, all of which have far fewer health issues than cigarettes. Of course, we don’t live in a sane world – but it’s worth at least thinking about.

I Never Left The Left. The Left Left Me

Clenched fist
Power to the… white, middle-class puritans!

Richard Herring is a favourite comedian of mine. He enjoys causing controversy (as, in my opinion, all good comedians should), and is funny with it. He recently caused a stir on Twitter by writing the following in his regular Metro column:

At one gig, a  woman was loudly  and unamusingly commentating on everything that happened. I said to her: ‘You’re a bit talkative, aren’t you? You’re loquacious. It’s annoying. You’re the one woman in the world where a man would put Rohypnol in your drink and then leave you in the pub.’

Funny? I’d say so, as heckle put-downs go. The people it offended were not my usual targets; they were some of the better known (along with many less well known) voices of the British left. Not only was the joke attacked, but the very right to refer to rape within comedy itself was questioned. I joined in the discussion, defending Herring’s right to free speech (the quality of the joke itself is down to personal taste). To me, there’s only one question that may affect his right to joke about rape: did his comment, in any way, put women in more danger of being sexually assaulted? I would say not.

The tendency for the left to attack free speech in this way has grown hugely since my flirtations with left-wing activism in the 1980s. How did it become so humourless, censorious and (from the perspective of someone who used to feel at home on the left) downright embarrassing?

It’s pretty normal, in my Twitter encounters, for right-wingers to label me a commie or some other meaningless “leftie”-type label. It’s certainly true, as should be clear to regular readers, that my political roots are on the left, and in many ways my views still remain there. MoronWatch arrived on Twitter expecting to find a wealth of deeply stupid right-wingers, and I haven’t been disappointed in that. In my observation, the IQ of the right is undoubtedly below that of the left – and research backs that up. But on some occasions when I tangle with left-wingers, I’m left surprised and disappointed with the lack of thoughtfulness and intelligence that I’d once have associated with them.

The left began from a powerful intellectual base: the progressive philosophers and activists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The progressives analyzed and understood Capitalism better than its defenders did – after all, if you benefit from the status quo, there’s no need to understand the system’s strength or its flaws; you defend it without requiring intellect. Furthermore, and (I think) even more importantly, the left developed the modern foundation of individual liberty that underlies so much political thinking today.

Yes, you read correctly: the early left was the standard-bearer for political and individual freedoms. This will confuse many morons-of-the-right, because that’s not the story they’ve been told. The Cold War entailed the telling of a simple story by the US propaganda machine: The Free World vs. The Evil Communists. The loss of the Russian Revolution to Stalinism added weight to the claims that capitalism=freedom and communism=repression. But it wasn’t nearly that simple, then or ever. The first person to call himself a Libertarian wasn’t some tax-hating rich guy, but a 19th century French Anarchist Communist called Joseph Déjacque. The Russian Revolution, destroyed in practise by Stalin and then in memory by Cold War American propaganda was an explosion of freedom in one of the world’s most authoritarian countries. Among many other acts, the revolution legalised homosexuality, with leaders declaring “homosexual relationships and heterosexual relationships are treated exactly the same by the law” – decades before the “Land of the Free” got around to doing the same thing. And even during the Cold War, while the US could boast of better freedom of speech at home than in the Soviet Union (although the differences were exaggerated), it was simultaneously responsible for a massive, global attack on democracy and free speech (one strand of which came back to haunt the US on September 11 2001).

By the post-war period, the left had split into three broad sections: the social democratic, moderate strand that had gained power in western Europe, the authoritarianism of the Soviet Union and its communist supporters, and a libertarian strand led by the Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. Perhaps the Trotskyists were ready to build a global, libertarian left, but Trotsky was murdered in 1940 by an agent of Stalin, and his fledgling movement fragmented into multiple, feuding splinter groups, brilliantly satirised in The Life of Brian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the remnants of Communist parties worldwide. The formerly social democratic parties embraced “the market” (in other words, the rights of corporations were enshrined above the rights of individuals) and simultaneously became more authoritarian.

What remained of the old left had become conservative, authoritarian, unintelligent and dogmatic and, as I mentioned above, downright embarrassing. In place of free debate, political correctness now rules various subjects unacceptable for discussion, and you can expect lefties to shout you down if you try to talk about (or joke about) Forbidden Subjects. The British left has lost its working-class roots; its commentators are primarily middle-class professionals with no links to urban youth. It’s of no surprise then that the left had no more idea than the right as to why young people rioted last year.

To make up for the lack of non-white faces, the left has spent the past three decades fast-tracking black people into key roles; the result has been that some of the leading black political figures of the left have been incompetent and often self-serving. Their appointment makes the left look more mixed, but leaves it as far removed from racial minorities as ever. The left’s painfully PC views on race have suppressed, rather than enhanced discussion on so many important issues.

Examples of the moronic left-wing attitudes and ideas I frequently encounter include:

  • Karl Marx is no longer a progressive thinker of his day, but a deity whose every word is sacred. In a recent debate about sex-worker rights, I was told that Marx didn’t support them. So therefore it’s not left-wing to support them (what could be more conservative than freezing your ideology in the mid-19th century?)
  • The market is always evil (neatly mirroring the right-wing morons who think the market is always right).
  • Every problem in black communities is caused by racism or is a legacy of the slave trade or colonialism (this pleases afrocentric thinkers, but does nothing to understand or fix real-life problems).
  • Only white people can be racist, because if non-whites people are racist, it’s not their fault – we made them do it by being evil to them. Note the colonial attitude here: apparently black and Asian people are simple creatures who learned everything from us.
  • While women can (of course) hold opinions on everything, female issues are the preserve of female discussion only (I was recently told by an apparently liberal person that I couldn’t judge whether a woman was a feminist or not – presumably because I’m male, although the person refused to clarify).

The left no longer values science as it once did – indeed, its loudest spokespeople appear to overwhelmingly consist of non-science graduates. The irrational hatred of genetically-modified organisms (because they are made by evil corporations) is one example. Never mind that GMOs have the potential to lift millions of people out of starvation; the fact that they were created for profit makes them evil. The PC-left castigates modern society for its environmental destruction and wars, but often idolises primitive “tribal” societies as being “wiser custodians of the planet”. In reality, many primitive societies destroyed their own environments (and sometimes themselves); and violence is probably lower today than at any point in human history. Idolising an imaginary golden past is the definition of conservative, not progressive; today’s left is often deeply conservative.

While attacks on sexual freedom used to come from the right, now they largely come from the left, using the intellectually-vacant excuse of “objectification” – effectively meaningless, but giving so-called liberals a cover to attack the baring of flesh, just as right-wing religious types used to do.

Although I have some nostalgia for the old left, it seems best to put it out of its misery now. Authoritarianism is on the rise, and I see no more sign that the left is deeply opposed to this than I do on the right. A new Social Libertarianism is needed, resting on twin pillars: social justice and individual freedom. Social justice isn’t just a “nice to have”, and neither is liberty; I’m convinced that neither can possibly exist without the other, and that both are vital to prevent a coming economic and social collapse resulting from today’s corporatocracy. The dangers to our freedom today come from an intertwined dual menace: corporations and the militarised state. Like fairness and freedom, corporate profiteering and the police state go hand in hand. The enemies of freedom were once largely found on the right; now they exist across the entire political spectrum. The new political battle-lines are drawn; those who attack a man’s right to involve controversial subjects in humour are the enemies of free speech, however “progressive” or “liberal” they may appear on the surface.

Silk Road: The Free Drugs Market Is Here

ecstasy pills
The Silk Road Giveth…

The typical retail recreational drug dealer isn’t the most ambitious of characters. The job offers a decent income, short working hours and the chance to spend all day getting high on your own supply and watching porn; no doubt the dream job for many teenage males, but a little bit sad if you reach your 30s and you’re still doing it. The skills required are minimal – find a supplier and a set of digital scales, spread the word through friends (carefully, mind) and the customers start to roll in. Thanks to the prohibition of drugs, there’s no need to provide good customer service, or a quality product. Competition is minimal, and the free market limited – customers have little choice but to come back, however bad a service or product they receive.

The stupidity of prohibition really hits home when you realise what kind of morons end up dealing drugs for a living. According to Drugscope, British “coke” is only about 26% pure when it reaches the customer, and can contain any blend of a dozen or more substances. In order to keep his prices keen and his margins high, the dealer will cut in other, cheaper (and sometimes more dangerous) drugs and fillers. The buyer has little idea what he’s actually buying – and the same applies to other drugs from heroin to hashish and pills of various types.

The official line is, of course, that prohibition exists to protect the public, but this is nonsensical. Most “drug deaths” aren’t caused by the substances that customers think they’re buying, but by the unknown substances that are sneaked in by suppliers, or uncertainty over dosages. In just one of many examples, Lancashire police warned users a few years ago that cocaine was possibly being cut with a carcinogenic substance. Cocaine itself isn’t a particularly dangerous drug (far less so than alcohol, for example), but moronic attempts at prohibition have made it into one. If this happened in any legal business, the authorities could step in; but our moronic leaders have decided that the recreational drugs trade will be run by criminals, with no regulation whatsoever.

Many recreational drug users are well-informed about the substances they choose to use, and thanks to the Internet, reliable health information (which should be provided by governments) is shared among users. Drugs deaths are extremely rare – the real killer drug, alcohol, kills ten times more people than all illegal substances combined. Alcohol is a dangerous substance used by the majority because they have no other legal drug options, and little understanding that safer substances exist. A large minority of people choose other drugs, but find trouble with sourcing clean and reliable supplies because they are illegal.

A genuine free market in recreational drugs would give users the control to buy what they want, from trusted suppliers, instead of basing their drug choices on what is legal, or easily available.

That moment has arrived. No: political leaders haven’t overcome their stupidity, corruption and cowardice, and decided to legalise, regulate and tax a drugs market; instead, technology has stepped in to fill the void. The Silk Road marketplace is a web site set up by unknown geeks and run from unknown places. It makes use of state-of-the-art technologies in encryption, anonymisation and digital currency. It allows sellers to list products, and buyers to browse, check out vendors, and purchase safely. By use of an eBay-style rating system, vendors can score suppliers by reliability and product quality. Just as with eBay, the rating of vendors allows the “wisdom of crowds” to help reliable, honest vendors to be identified.

You want ecstasy, LSD, ketamine, cocaine or diazepam? Heroin, cannabis, hashish or morphine perhaps? They’re all there, and many more. The site can’t be accessed via a regular web browser; it uses the Tor browser to route connections through multiple servers and prevent them being traced, and the Bitcoin electronic currency to allow anonymous payments. The marketplace has been around for over a year – Gawker reported on it on 1st June 2011, and it still appears to be thriving.

I’m far from being an anti-government, fundamentalist libertarian. It’s true, as the Silk Road demonstrates, that markets are often good at creating freedom in the midst of repression, and that competition tends to lead to better, cheaper products and better service. But I also believe that good regulation makes for better markets; governments have a duty (which they currently shirk) to control the quality of recreational drugs and inform customers of what they’re buying. Government negligence in refusing to regulate the drugs market destroys millions of lives, and entire countries; there should be global outrage against the “war on drugs”, but the corporate media does a great job in persuading the majority that drugs, rather than the “war on drugs”, are the real menace.

The Silk Road presents an opportunity for governments to accept that the “war on drugs” never had a hope in hell of succeeding. They could destroy the system overnight by offering their citizens legal, regulated, safe supplies of drugs. As I’ve blogged previously, they could reduce the damage caused by alcohol by offering legal alternatives. But politicians are too badly informed, or cowardly, and vested interests too powerful, so rather than do the sane thing, authorities are no doubt trying to track down and arrest the operators of the Silk Road. In the interest of liberty, and of saving yet more countries from being torn apart by the “war on drugs”, let’s hope that they fail.

Since prehistoric times, almost all human societies have used drugs. They’ll never go away; our leaders can only ensure that they are as safe – and as good – as possible. The Silk Road is a technological, market-based attack on the “war on drugs” – it may not be ideal, but it’s a step in the right direction.