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Anti-Luddites: the people versus the old machine

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John P asked here, how ECF and other internet forums would fare if e-cigarette bans became more prevalent.

In response, this post is is about the new citizens' movement and how it will sweep away the old machine: the old technology, the old industries, the old smoking and disease based section of the economy, and the government backing for the old-established industries. In a way it is like the Luddites reversed: citizens with new technology sweeping away the old machinery. The old technology and the part of the old economy based on it are about to be consigned to history.


The worst-case scenario
What about the online community and its forums? There is a worst case, and then all the rest of the possibilities.

The worst case is if PVs (electronic cigarettes) become so heavily regulated that there is a de facto ban in the US, UK and EU for a decade or two (regulations that are a ban for all practical purposes, and intended to remove ecigs as far as is possible). This seems unlikely even though there are well-funded and well-supported people in all those areas aggressively working toward that aim. They managed it quite well with Snus because the community couldn't and wouldn't organise quickly or efficiently enough to fight back; this is not the case with ecigs, and when the community is large enough it can protect itself. That is already the case, and the next goal is to make the community large enough to become a voting bloc.

Although this seems a difficult aim, there are indications it will be a possibility. Although theoretically we cannot grow larger than about 50 - 60% of the number of smokers within a short timescale (two decades or less), and even though smokers (including occasional/social smokers, which is relevant for this purpose) are about 25% of populations then this would only give us 13% or 14% of the population, instead there is a possibility that this is not the limiting factor that it might be assumed to be. In Sweden, smokers are about 12% of the population due to the effects of THR (though only around 8% male); but for a reason hard to explain, about 21% are Snusers: users of the THR product Snus. Therefore the consumer nicotine market appears to be as much as one-third of the population even in an advanced developed country. The dual-use issue complicates things, but even so, there are more Snusers than might be expected.

I can't explain that stat although no doubt someone like Carl Phillips could. What it means is that it looks as if, where free access to THR is available, smokers shrink to half the usual number (or less), and maybe keep shrinking, but THR users grow to not just fill the gap, but almost equal the usual smoker population figure. If this applies to ecig users then perhaps more than 20% of the population will eventually become vapers (some will perhaps just be occasional vapers - 'social vapers' instead of 'social smokers'), even though smoker numbers drop by half or more and keep shrinking.

This means we would eventually have a potential voting bloc of more than 20% of the population, which is quite powerful. It is certainly big enough to influence policy, as demonstrated by the success of the 'new' UKIP party in the recent UK local elections (platform: Britain should leave the EU): a 20% shift terrified the major parties and is having a significant influence on policy discussion.

Vapers have already shown that they are unusually strongly motivated to protect their interests, and this is an extraordinary factor that has been completely underestimated by commercial rivals so far. They have never seen anything like this, and the growth in the ability of vapers to influence political policy making (i.e. commercial decisions) has stunned them by its speed of growth and relatively strong influence for a citizen's group, who traditionally have little effect on policy. The speed of the switch together with the degree of engagement by the user community has been a shock to existing industries.

Even if ecigs were banned virtually everywhere, it is too late to stop what is looking like an avalanche. Even if the legal market is prohibited, the supply will go underground, and the internet will fuel that supply and the movement that will surround it. In fact it is likely that the movement would become fairly powerful in the face of widespread bans, due to motivation removing many people's natural aversion to activism. In a worst-case scenario, internet forums will become even stronger.

I don't see that as a likely outcome because politicians will have to balance commercial motivations against people power, and when there are enough people it becomes too difficult to control their purchasing choices. In other words, bans get reversed when prohibition doesn't work due to sufficient people disagreeing; something that is bad news from an economic perspective will, even so, become the norm.

And ecigs are an economic timebomb, make no mistake: they will shut down income channels worth tens of billions fairly soon, and hundreds of billions eventually, without providing a suitable replacement income channel; and they will remove a useful population size controller in an era where wars and disease don't do the job efficiently any more. You can't successfully tax something that causes no measurable harm (as the black market takes over); you can't replace a disease creator that supports a vast and hugely-profitable drug treatment market; you can't replace an economic force that relies on taxable sin and widescale sickness (if 50% of continuing smokers die from the diseases, as we are told, then a much greater proportion are sick; otherwise this would be the only disease since the Black Death that kills virtually everyone who gets it; the only disease that kills millions but has no symptoms and needs no treatment until you drop dead).


Best case scenario
A best-case scenario is where e-cigarettes eventually become the norm. In this scenario there are very few tobacco smokers left (most having voluntarily moved to ecigs), and who in some places may even have to get their supplies on the black market. I can guarantee you that this will eventually be the case; how many decades it will take is the only question.

Tobacco cigarettes will eventually be prohibited in some places when their user population, voting power and revenue generating potential shrink too far to protect them. This won't matter to the remaining smokers since they will always be able to obtain the products, and probably cheaper than they are now in any case (as the huge taxes won't apply once the product goes black market, and when market forces take over the pricing levels; tobacco is cheap and easy to grow, and will always be a legal crop somewhere). Prohibition doesn't stop anything. The big loser in every scenario is the pharmaceutical industry, as nothing can replace the huge sums generated by the sick smoker treatment market.

However, despite the pharmaceutical industry being the biggest industry to lose out (governments will lose a great deal more), they aren't sunk. There will be plenty of replacements for smoking disease coming along soon: you can't have a more overcrowded planet producing more waste that is more toxic every decade that passes without disease increasing on a wonderful scale for pharma. New cancers will replace the old cancers.


The Godshall/Herzog theory
The Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog said last year that ecigs will outsell tobacco cigs in the US within a decade. I always considered that to be a bit far-fetched: 51% of smokers switching by 2022 looked way too fast to be possible. But this year has seen acceleration in uptake - the graph looks to be getting steeper instead of levelling out. Blucigs for example seem to have multiplied sales by four. My prediction of 25% smoker conversion by 2020 is now beginning to look too conservative, and I may have to eat humble pie and accede to the greater accuracy of Mrs Herzog's estimate.

[edit] You will see from Bill Godshall's comment below that Herzog's opinion was originally suggested by him, which I had not been aware of; the subheading above has been changed, to reflect this. I often argue with Bill; he generally turns out to be right.

This is unlike anything seen before and trying to stop it would be like standing in front of a tsunami. They'll be able to slow it down, but stopping it is another matter. That would require the universal introduction of the sort of Stalinist laws to keep production owned by the State and established industry that we are seeing: forcing citizens to pay for old-style products and their high taxes, then get sick and pay more, then die; forcing China to cease all exports; and shutting down part of the internet.


They'll try and fail
There are people who will be so desperate to hang on to what they've got that they will attempt this, and no doubt partially succeed (as they clearly have sufficient power and money to suborn government); but it won't work. You can't put the genie back in the bottle; Luddites become irrelevant within a decade or so. What we are now witnessing is a kind of reverse-Ludditeism: the population versus the commercial machine, and powered by more advanced technology than the establishment has. The iPhone generation versus Sir Walter Raleigh's descendants, who never moved on.

I think the iPhone generation will win; Raleigh and the leeches are starting to look like a bad bet.

 

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