Thursday, May 31, 2007
Two From Wednesday's Trib
It's now Thursday, so you will probably have to sign up for the free registration if you want to read online the two vice articles that appeared in the Metro section of Wednesday's Chicago Tribune. The first concerns a 'racy' billboard outside suburban Glenview:
The 10-foot-by-36-foot sign along Willow Road near Patriot Boulevard depicts a model lying on the beach with lines pointing to "problem" areas on her body, such as facial lines and wrinkles, and corresponding "solutions," including Botox.The owner of the salon is a native Parisian -- which seems to be part of his defense -- and the billboard does bring back memories to me of my six-month Paris sojourn last year. (Not much else in the Glenview area has the same effect.) He isn't backing down to the pressure -- either out of principle, I suppose, or because the previously mailed ad featuring the same photo proved to be great for business.
By Tuesday, more than 300 people had signed petitions asking the owners of the salon and medical spa to replace the billboard, Thibeau said.
Trib vice article number two was on the very next page in the print edition, in a boon to vice-interested readers throughout the Chicagoland area. This story concerns how librarians are standing up for free speech by opposing proposed Illinois state legislation that would, you guessed it, require internet filters to annoy vice researchers (oh, and for the children). Librarians continue to be my anti-authoritarian heroes, despite that unfortunate reputation for shussing you. And while they may be anti-authoritarian, they can be pretty authoritative themselves. How would a librarian handle some n'er do well using an internet connection inappropriately? With a federal or state law? Noooooo. From the end of the Trib story:
Jane Schulten, director of the Crete Public Library, said filters are labor intensive. She said her small staff might not be able to closely monitor each computer or turn software on and off each time a patron makes such a request.
She said she's only had two incidents in eight years in which a patron looked at something deemed inappropriate. In both cases, a "tap-on-the-shoulder" approach seemed to work, Schulten said.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Reducing Alcohol Consumption via Inconvenience
The licensing of vice sellers as a method to help enforce regulations and police externalities such as public nuisances passes muster with no less a fan of individual liberty than John Stuart Mill. Vice Squad might even go beyond Mill, and support seller licensing as a way to place a small barrier to vice availability. But the licensing restrictions upon carry-out alcohol in St. Georges, Utah, are beginning to put a substantial barrier in the way of alcohol acquisition.
The problem has worsened, according to this AP article, because of rapid population growth in the St. Georges area: there is one state liquor outlet for the town of 126,000 people. In Utah, wine, distilled alcohol, and any beer that contains more than 3.2 alcohol by weight can be sold only from a state-owned store.
Why don't they open more stores? Well, they are getting around to it, but state law doesn't require another store -- it only establishes the maximum number of stores across the state (one per 48,000 people), and doesn't concern itself with the intrastate liquor store distribution. Of course, you could drive for half an hour from St. Georges to Nevada to buy your booze, but according to the linked article, you could then face 6 months in prison when you cross back into Utah with your alcohol on board. (Recall the second section of the 21st Amendment: "The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.")
3.2 percent (by weight) or lower alcohol beer is more widely available in Utah. Few beers in the US, in their regular form, are this low in alcohol, but big brewers tend to manufacture 3.2 versions of their beers for sale in Utah and the other (three, according to this 2001 article) states that use the 3.2 figure for regulatory purposes. The 3.2 threshold is an artifact from the end of Prohibition. After FDR became president, he moved to amend the Volstead Act, the law which implemented the 18th Amendment's national alcohol prohibition. In April 1933, the Volstead Act was amended to permit 3.2 percent beer; before the end of the year, national prohibition was history. The state whose ratification put the 21st Amendment over the top, and hence ended Prohibition, was Utah.
Monday, May 28, 2007
Pregnancy and Vice
The direct costs and benefits of traditional vices, almost by definition, fall almost entirely upon the vice practitioner him or her self. (This is one of the most important features that distinguish, say, a drug addict from a thief.) A drinker enjoys the intoxication and suffers the hangover, a gambler risks her own money and reaps the (usually negative) reward. But there are exceptions, two of the most common being the harms that second-hand tobacco smoke can cause to proximate non-smokers and the harms that some drugs can bring to the fetuses of pregnant women. (Less-than-direct effects, such as those that arise from drunk driving, also fall upon folks other than the vice consumers or producers.) These direct harms to others from vice involvement, not surprisingly, can lead to both government regulations and social disapproval.
Zoe Williams, a now-pregnant columnist for the Guardian, looks at some of the advice that both the British government and others provide to expectant moms about various hazardous behaviors -- including alcohol and caffeine consumption. The government last week altered its alcohol advice to pregnant women, from a regime of very moderate consumption to one of total abstinence. This change occurred in the absence of any new scientific information concerning the effects of alcohol on fetuses. But as Williams notes, limited, non-binge consumption of alcohol does not really seem to pose any risks, and of course, moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy was common both in the previous generation and throughout human history. Modest caffeine consumption also appears to be safe for babies, but some people (including medical professionals) urge pregnant women to give up caffeinated coffee and even chocolate bars, which contain fairly low doses of caffeine. Williams distrusts much of this advice:
Despite having got yourself into a spot of bother, pregnant women, you are still in the possession of adult judgment, and you are still allowed to use it. If the official advice sounds stringent to the point of insanity, examine it more closely - you aren't just a selfish person, looking for loopholes for your own sorry enjoyment.
Trading Vice and Income Taxes
Estonia has elected to increase its taxes on alcohol and tobacco (and fuel), while decreasing the income tax rate from 22 to 18 percent. Given the low levels of vice taxes that already exist in Estonia, and the high likelihood that the alcohol tax, in particular, does not fully account for external costs, this sounds like a good trade-off to me. Even if the externalities were accounted for, the "welfare costs" of taxing income (and thereby dissuading work in the official sector) might well be higher than the inefficiencies brought about by taxing alcohol, when it comes to raising a fixed amount of revenue.*
In any event, the tax hike comes as good news to Finland, which reluctantly felt compelled to lower its own alcohol tax upon the impending accession of Estonia to the European Union; since then, alcohol-related problems in Finland have increased. The prospect of higher alcohol prices in Estonia has the Finns thinking of re-raising domestic alcohol taxes.
*For an argument along these lines, see Larry G. Sgontz, “Optimal Taxation: The Mix of Alcohol and Other Taxes.” Public Finance Quarterly 21(3): 260-275, July 1993.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
A Filtering Irony
Last night I posted about the initiative in Monroe County, New York, to make it difficult for library patrons to access "pornographic" websites on the internet. The post was motivated by this (not work safe) article in Adult Video News.
The AVN article quoted Bill Smith, a Monroe County legislator. I didn't mention the quote in the blog post, but I e-mailed Mr. Smith last night concerning his quote. I wouldn't have mentioned the e-note on Vice Squad at all, except that my e-mail to Mr. Smith was not received because it was filtered out, according to the automatic reply I received last night. This is not the first time this has happened to me -- because vice policy-related e-mails often contain words which alarm e-mail filters, they occasionally are screened out by over-inclusive filters.
Yes, filters are both under- and over-inclusive. In Buffalo, soon-to-be required filters will be screening out internet content at public libraries. I suppose that it might be hard for legislators to imagine that there might be "legitimate" reasons to access "pornographic" websites, but as a vice policy researcher who both frequently uses library internet connections and who visits sites such as AVN.com, I can assure them that it is so. I take these filters somewhat personally, as I am more likely than most people to be inconvenienced by them.
Anyway, as I cannot successfully transmit my e-mail to Mr. Smith directly, I will append the text of it below. I was pointing out the difference between a library collection decision and the filtering mandate, using Justice Souter's words. (I misspelled Justice Souter's name in the original email but correct it below; I also omit the url of the avn.com article in my reproduction of the email.)
I just read a story by Jed Nottingham, "Rochester Library Will
Censor Web Viewing," which included a quote from you. (The
article is at avn.com, a website that could easily fall afoul
of internet filters; the article's precise url is [omitted here -- see above].) The paragraph including your quote is...
"If adopting the recommendation is censorship,
then this library is already in big trouble,"
said Bill Smith, the Republican majority leader
of the county legislature and a county library
board liaison, "[The] act of choosing books is
censorship and [you] have a collection policy
that implies and, in fact, results in rejection
of material all the time."
I just wanted to point put that there is what I take to be a
significant difference between a collection policy and the
internet filtering. I'll let Justice Souter make the point,
from his dissent in US et al. v. American Library
Association, Inc., et al., 539 U.S. 194 (2003):
...In the instance of the Internet, what the
library acquires is electronic access, and
the choice to block is a choice to limit access
that has already been acquired. Thus, deciding
against buying a book means there is no book
(unless a loan can be obtained), but blocking
the Internet is merely blocking access purchased
in its entirety and subject to unblocking if the
librarian agrees. The proper analogy therefore
is not to passing up a book that might have been
bought; it is either to buying a book and then
keeping it from adults lacking an acceptable
“purpose,” or to buying an encyclopedia and then
cutting out pages with anything thought to be
unsuitable for all adults.
All the best.
Update! Blocked again! I emailed Monroe County to provide the url of this post, and once again, could not get my e-mail through. That's quite an efficient email filter they have there. I'll try another message from my yahoo account. Further update: it looks as if the yahoo e-note made it past the vigilant Monroe County filter.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Library Internet Censoring in Rochester
Thanks to CIPA (Children's Internet Protection Act) and its Supreme Court blessing, many public libraries throughout our land already have filters aimed at blocking smut placed on all of their internet-connected computers. Monroe County, New York, intends to go CIPA one better, according to this (not work safe) AVN.com article about the new library smut policy:
The policy, which is expected to extend to all libraries in the county, calls for use of the library's Internet-filtering system to block all pornographic sites unless — after a written request — an administrator deems a site appropriate for a patron to view. While the county library board adopted the policy, there was no clear sense of how to implement it.They also finessed the matter of what exactly constitutes a pornographic website.
Despite the CIPA precedent, I believe that there is a chance that the Monroe County policy could be found to violate the First Amendment. CIPA survived a per se challenge, but Justice Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion specifically for the purpose, it seems, of pointing out that CIPA might later be challenged not on its face, but as applied, if the method of disabling the filter for an adult patron proved onerous: "If some libraries do not have the capacity to unblock specific Web sites or to disable the filter or if it is shown that an adult user's election to view constitutionally protected Internet material is burdened in some other substantial way, that would be the subject for an as-applied challenge, not the facial challenge made in this case." Sounds to me like having to ask permission from an administrator in writing, and possibly even being turned down, burdens an adult's choice to view constitutionally protected material in a substantial way.
Fake Prostitution Crime
It's the prostitution that is fake, not the crime. Vice Squad frequently notes how vice criminalization breeds further crimes, because unscrupulous people suspect that illegal vice-involved victims generally will be reluctant to call upon the police. A small case in point surfaces from Wyoming. A taxi cab driver offered to procure prostitutes for one or more customers, according to the allegations. After the customer(s) paid him, the cabbie did not follow through. The case came to light when two of the 'promised' women contacted police - they had received angry phone calls from a jilted would-be customer.
Thursday, May 24, 2007
More on Self-Exclusion
A couple days ago Vice Squad mentioned self-exclusion as one component of a policy regime that can aid problematic gamblers, and noted the possibility that forms of self-exclusion (perhaps instituted as part of broader consumer licensing policies) could be applied to other vices. Even if self-exclusion does not work all that well, it has two appealing features, namely, it is voluntary and it does not impose on gamblers who are uninterested in being excluded.
I have tried to learn a little bit more about gambling self-exclusion, and have been aided by two articles: "Casino Self-Exclusion Programmes: A Review of the Issues," by Nadine R. Nowatzki and Robert J. Williams (18-page pdf here), published in July 2002 in International Gambling Studies; and, "Self-exclusion: A Proposed Gateway to Treatment Model," by Alex Blaszczynski, Robert Ladouceur, and Lia Nower, in the April 2007 issue of the same journal. Some things I learned from these articles:
(1) Gambling self-exclusion is quite recent, with the first formal program adopted in Canada in 1989. [Update! -- Looks like Austria got there, oh, more than a half century earlier.]
(2) Lots of folks who self-exclude from a gambling location breach their agreement by returning (sometimes disguised) to the location and gambling. Compliance with self-exclusion agreements is higher in the Netherlands, because entrants to casinos in the Netherlands must present identification, which can be checked against the self-excluded list. It also appears that the self-exclusion program in the Netherlands is accessed by a higher proportion of problem gamblers than are similar (but not identical -- there is lots of variation among self-exclusion rules) programs elsewhere.
(3) Despite the enforcement problems, self-exclusion programs are associated with some beneficial outcomes. Blaszczynski, Ladouceur, and Nower (page 62) describe a recent evaluation of one self-exclusion regime: "Participants reported that, at follow-up, the urge to gamble was significantly reduced while the perception of control increased significantly for all participants. The intensity of negative consequences for gambling was significantly reduced for daily activities, social life, work and mood."
(4) Though exclusion programs are designed to help those who have self-control problems with gambling, the decision to enter an exclusion agreement can itself be made in an o'er-hasty fashion, perhaps after suffering a significant gambling loss. Blaszczynski, Ladouceur, and Nower (page 69) suggest that gamblers who insist on immediate exclusion be provided with a 24-hour exclusion while their case is under consideration, thus giving them time to cool-off before a decision is taken regarding a longer-lasting exclusion.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
It's Official: Antigua Defeats US
The wheels of World Trade Organization justice turn rather slowly. After some four years and myriad reversals and dramatic double reversals, the WTO has adopted its March ruling that US rules on internet betting on horse racing are illegal. Recall (see the Vice Squad post from May 4, 2007) that the US response to the pre-official ruling was to unilaterally 'renegotiate' its trade obligations, claiming that the renegotiated version represented its intentions all along. So it needn't even provide compensation to its trading partners who are harmed by the altered treaty terms, the US argues. Sure, WTO rules require compensation when a country alters its obligations, but the US, you see, never really agreed to those silly old obligations anyway, so now that we've cleared that up we can all just forget about this little WTO ruling, OK?
"Brazil and India on Tuesday both said the United States was obliged by law to compensate Antigua if it wants to now redefine its services obligations." Antigua's WTO-endorsed threat, should it not receive satisfaction, includes disregarding US trademarks and copyrights.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Criminalisation, Criminals, and Compassionate Cannabis
One of the costs of drug prohibition is that regular law-abiding folks who also want to use proscribed drugs sometimes have to deal in a criminal sub-culture to acquire their supply. Further, having drugs on hand makes one reluctant to call the police when one is a victim of crime, lest the victim become the target of the investigation. In England (we learn from this Guardian article), a woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis grew her own marijuana, which she smoked hourly for pain relief -- other remedies having failed her. The criminalisation of pot not only pushed her into self-supplying, it also made her grow operation quite valuable. Further, would-be thieves would recognize that she would be reluctant to report the theft of her marijuana. So her crop was stolen while she was away. A neighbor saw evidence of a break-in and did not have the same motive to avoid reporting the crime, and the police were called. As a result, the MS sufferer and crime victim was haled into court. On Monday, she received a conditional discharge -- one wonders whether a US court would have been as merciful -- but she faces ongoing legal trouble if she continues to use medical marijuana. So she asks, 'What can I do now? The government should either make cannabis available on the National Health Service or give people like me some sort of amnesty.' Or perhaps they could end the prohibition of marijuana more generally.
When the cost-benefit types examine drug prohibition, do they catch all of the angles -- the reluctance of drug users to report crimes (and hence the promotion of crime), the stifling of beneficial uses of the drug in question, the waste of police and court resources arrayed against people who have done nothing wrong....?
Monday, May 21, 2007
Self-Exclusion and Licensing
An effective tool for helping some problem gamblers is self-exclusion, whereby an individual registers to be prevented from entering commercial gambling establishments, and to be free of targeted inducements from casino marketers. Pennsylvania set up its self-exclusion program last year, and announced today that so far 52 people have placed themselves on the excluded list. Pennsylvania allows self-excluders to choose among a one-year ban, a five-year ban, and a lifetime ban, and 42% (22 individuals, presumably) have chosen the lifetime ban.
Last Monday (May 14, 2007 -- problem with internal links solved!), Vice Squad noted (in the case of an addiction to internet Scrabble) how a credible 'lack of access' might reduce or eliminate withdrawal and cravings. In the case of the gambling exclusion, here's the experience of one Keystone State participant:
J.D., a self-excluded individual, echoes those thoughts [of the effectiveness of exclusion]. "Since the day I signed up, I haven't really thought about gambling," J.D. said. "I sleep better at night. I feel better when I'm at home."Requiring licenses for vice consumption would automatically set-up an exclusion system -- those who want to be excluded could refuse to acquire or renew their license, or even precommit to not acquiring a license. Or perhaps they would acquire a license, but voluntarily impose a ceiling on the extent to which the license allows participation. When currently illegal drugs such as heroin or cocaine are legalized, I suspect that such a licensing system -- and the accompanying self-exclusion possibilities -- will commonly form part of the control regimes.
I first learned of Pennsylvania's press release from earthtimes.org.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Bhutan's Tobacco Ban
Bhutan banned sales of tobacco about two and a half years ago, following up with a rather comprehensive public smoking ban. (Vice Squad, prescient as ever, noted the forthcoming ban a full year in advance, on December 9, 2003.) How have things worked out in the tobacco-free paradise? Well, perhaps not as swimmingly as one might have hoped -- Bhutan is landlocked, incidentally -- according to this article from India eNews. Detailed regulations implementing the ban have not yet been adopted, and tourists, diplomats, and NGO workers are excluded from the prohibition (their health being less important, presumably). The black market thrives -- who would have thought of that? But I will not go so far as to blame a 7,000 acre forest fire on the public smoking ban (as the linked article seems to do); teenagers were the culprits, and they are likely to smoke clandestinely even when public smoking by adults is legal.
The Bhutanese are not averse to all vice. According to one of the kingdom's official web pages, chang (a beer), arra (a distilled spirit), and betel nuts are all common, along with salted butter tea.
NYC Dance Parade
A protest in New York City yesterday took the unusual form of a dance parade. The target of the protest is rules from the 1920s that require special cabaret licenses for establishments that serve food or drink, if dancing also is to take place there. The licensing regulations have been challenged, but were upheld in an appeals court decision two weeks ago. And so the dance parade.
Cabarets were major parts of the New York City social scene before World War I. But times changed, as chronicled in The Night Club Era, a 1933 book (reissued in 1999) by Stanley Walker:
The cabaret, during the war and immediately afterward, found the going tough. It was being smirched by a cheaper and less leisurely life, harried by the dance halls and chevvied by all manner of reformers, vice crusaders, licensing regulations and the massed forces of virtue [page 77].("Chevvied" means, roughly, "harassed," it seems.) Of course, these disreputable pre-World War I cabarets that provoked the good people of the land were soon replaced, during Prohibition, with something perhaps even less to their liking; Walker again, from page 77:
How innocent the old-time cabarets appear, viewed after the years of the hot night clubs! And yet these places had to contend with enemies almost as persistently annoying as prohibition agents and shakedown artists. There was a serious attack in 1915, when a committee... gathered much fearsome data against the cabaret. The object of this committee was not so much to abolish dancing as to divorce it from restaurants, and divorce both dancing and eating from drinking. It was dangerous, it appeared, to eat, drink and dance in the same place.And the legal divorce continues, unless a marriage license between food and dance is acquired.
For background information on the recent case and the enforcement of the cabaret license law, see here (lawsuit filed) and here (Goths have difficulty dancing in NYC).
Friday, May 18, 2007
Kansas Community Standards
Sexually-explicit forms of speech in the US can be regulated or banned provided that the three-part test from the 1973 case of Miller v. California is satisfied. The first part of the "Miller test" is that the work, taken as a whole, and in applying contemporary community standards, appeals to the prurient interest in sex. The second prong of the Miller test relating to "patent offensiveness" also relies upon contemporary community standards. (The third prong concerning the lack of serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value is not to be judged by community standards, according to a later Supreme Court decision, Pope v. Illinois (1987).)
I bring it up because I am wondering about the latest activities of anti-obscenity crusaders in Kansas. They have presented county prosecutors with petitions urging that grand juries be empaneled with the aim of bringing obscenity charges against some local businesses -- not one or two businesses, but, er, 32. Doesn't the very fact that they can identify 32 filth peddlers suggest that these businesses are operating in accord with community standards? I mean, maybe one or two businesses might be able to make a go of it even while flying wildly in the face of community standards -- but 32?
The anti-obscenity crusaders should be careful in opening up this petition thing. In Hong Kong, a student journal that included a quiz asking about incest and bestiality fantasies provoked 184 complaints, leading to a finding that the journal was indecent. But then a website went up describing some Biblical scenes; more than 1700 complaints have now been submitted to the indecency authorities about the Bible.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
The War on Khat in the US
Pete at Drug WarRant points us to an article that indicates the extent of federal resources that have been put into service to fight the relatively mild stimulant in the US. Turns out that despite the prosecutorial ardor, it might be hard to lock the defendants in cages for significant periods of time. The 'problem' is that the the 'bad' compound in khat, the one that is categorized with heroin in US drug scheduling, breaks down within a few days into another compound that just doesn't command the same amount of hard time. The article also is noteworthy for revealing, in passing, as it were, just how weak the arguments are for criminalizing khat possession at all. It is suggested that the khat crackdown might have something to do with fighting the war on terror in East Africa -- a crackdown on a drug produced in a potential terrorist-breeding ground always being a smashing policy choice (April 25, 2007).
All is not irrationality, however. The latest figures from TRAC indicate that the post-9/11 decline in federal drug prosecutions continues apace.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Another "Soft" (?) Addiction: The Internet
Two days ago Vice Squad mentioned Nora Ephron's addiction to a form of Scrabble -- an online form of Scrabble. Via Andrew Sullivan, we learn of the writer Stephen Elliott's experiment with being internet-free for one month -- and more importantly, of the observations and suggestions sparked by Mr. Elliott's experiment. He notes that it took him awhile to break a habit taught by the internet, that of being in throe to "continual bursts of small information," but that eventually, his ability to sustain attention upon a single task or book grew. After the month-long hiatus, Elliott implemented some rules to manage his internet usage: he abandoned his blog, stopped going online from home or on weekends, and limited his internet at work to 1 to 5 PM. Sounds like there's some wisdom in the Elliott approach, but giving up a blog -- well, that is taking things just a bit too far (June 6, 2005), no?
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
A friend of Vice Squad directs our attention to a notice in the Health Affairs blog about some articles on snus in this week's Lancet. Snus is the coolly-named four-lettered snuff-like product from Sweden -- is snus the IKEA of tobacco commodities? -- that would lead to a vast improvement in health if switched to by all current smokers (and if no other changes followed, such as diminished desistance or increased uptake of smoking or snus.) But making snus available for harm reduction purposes is a controversial policy, in part because it might legitimate tobacco and perhaps could lead to increased smoking. Further, snus is not perfectly safe in its own right -- there is some evidence that snus increases the risk of pancreatic cancer, for instance. Snus currently is legal in Sweden, but nowhere else within the European Union.
The Lancet articles attempt to put some quantitative markers on the trade-offs around snus use. According to the post at the Health Affairs blog, one of the Lancet articles (I do not yet have access to the originals), calculates that it would take 14 or more current non-smokers to take up snus to offset the health gain from one current smoker switching to snus. (It sounds as if the possibility that snus itself could eventually promote smoking is left out of the calculation, though.) In any event, the new articles do not appear to change what Vice Squad has considered to be the standard snus story, namely, that smoking is so bad for health that snus is likely to offer an attractive option to reduce total tobacco-related harms. Snus should be especially attractive (and I believe made available) to people who have been foiled in multiple attempts to quit smoking; I am not much of a fan of reducing the options to "quit" or "die" for those smokers with a demonstrated difficulty in quitting when there's a third alternative.
The most recent prior snus-posting at Vice Squad appeared on March 29, 2007.
Monday, May 14, 2007
Nora Ephron has an op-ed in Sunday's New York Times that details her addiction to a form of on-line Scrabble. Here's the start:
About three years ago, I stumbled onto something called Scrabble Blitz. It was a four-minute version of Scrabble solitaire, on a Web site called Games.com, and I began playing it without a clue that within 24 hours — I am not exaggerating — it would fry my brain.And slightly later in the article:
My brain turned to cheese. I could feel it happening. It was clear that I was becoming more and more scattered, more distracted, more unfocused; I was exhibiting all the symptoms of terminal attention deficit disorder; I was turning into a teenage boy.I think that the fact that the game can be completed within four minutes is an important part of its reinforcing nature -- playing just one more game is no big deal. And it is amazing how large a role easy access plays in these sorts of addictions -- if the Scrabble site goes down, an addict for whom access has become impossible might not even feel cravings, might be almost instantly "cured."
So-called soft addictions have been receiving a fair amount of publicity of late. (The term 'soft addiction' apparently was coined by Judith Wright, author of this book.) The list of common soft addictions includes much of, well, life: excessive procrastination, work, television, and coffee, for instance. Here's a quiz devised by Ms. Wright to help determine if you suffer from a soft addiction; I am addicted to quizzes.
England's Smoking Ban
England will join the policy of the rest of Britain on July 1 by instituting a public smoking ban that will apply to restaurants and pubs. The Guardian marks the occasion by devoting a special edition of its second section to smoking. Included in the festivities is a debate on the propriety of the ban between the ubiquitous Christopher Hitchens and the redoubtable Simon Hoggart. Hitchens, who last appeared in Vice Squad on January 16, 2004, in the aftermath of breaking New York City's smoking ban, is almost religiously opposed to the upcoming prohibition. Here's a sample:
...I do not object to smoking being banned on aeroplanes, in hospitals or in offices. But it has been a long time since any non-smoker has been forced to breathe the same air as a smoker. The upcoming general ban - Ms Hewitt's [Patricia Hewitt, Britain's Secretary of State for health] triumphant legislative monument - crosses a completely different line. It is no longer "about" the protection of non-smokers. It is "about" state-enforced behaviour-modification.Hitchens also uses the debate to suggest again that Afghanistan's opium crop should be purchased for legal pharmaceuticals -- an argument he presented in the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Policy.
Simon Hoggart, the Guardian's witty and insightful parliamentary sketch columnist (also previously mentioned in Vice Squad, December 20, 2004) is an ex-smoker, and he adopts the position that, essentially, there are no benefits to smoking:
Smoking is not like drinking. Booze has its drawbacks, as a visit to any British town centre on a Friday night will demonstrate. But we drink wine and beer because we like it. People do not like smoking. They smoke because smoking is the only relief from the pain of not having a cigarette. It is a wholly negative pleasure. That is why there has been so little fuss over the ban. Most smokers are privately relieved that it might help them give up.Hitchens is a current smoker, and he has no use for the 'no benefits' argument: "There have been moments of reverie, wreathed in smoke and alone with a book, and moments of conversation, perfumed with ashtrays and cocktails and decent company, which I would not have exchanged for a year of ordinary existence."
The special section also features a contribution from the frequently hilarious columnist Charlie Brooker, another ex-smoker:
For years, cigarettes and I were trapped in an abusive relationship. They beat me up, internally speaking, yet I couldn't live without them. To say I smoked like a chimney would be misleading. A chimney emits smoke serenely, with little apparent effort. I screwed my face up like a constipated pug, dragging on one deathstick after another like it was my second career. I even smoked in the shower.In the course of describing his own past smoking and multiple attempts to quit, Brooker mentions his (presumed) reaction to an antidepressant prescribed to help him quit smoking. The title of Brooker's column is "Warning: giving up smoking can seriously damage your health." The problems associated with some frequently-prescribed drugs, including very serious withdrawal symptoms, have not received much attention from Vice Squad, but they are immense. Here's a page devoted to withdrawal from benzodiazepines.
On a lighter note, Brooker has previously suggested pharmaceutical interventions to prevent romance; here's his anti-party rant.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Two Items Almost Related to US Temperance History
Alcohol and Drugs History Society provides pointers to two stories about drinking in America. The first is the news that George Washington's still has been reconstructed on its original site, and has begun producing whiskey. Visitors can purchase a taste, too, though one shouldn't expect anything, well, palatable, from the unaged fire water. The reconstruction of the Washington distillery was financed by the Distilled Spirits Council. This industry group has developed a Code of Responsible Practices for Beverage Alcohol Advertising and Marketing, which includes (among other things) rules for not targeting or appealing to the underage in alcohol ads, and not marketing drinks through associations with sexual prowess. Their semi-annual report featuring ads challenged under the rules and the responses to the challenges makes for fairly fascinating reading. Here (32-page pdf) is the most recent (July-December 2006) report.
Oh yeah, the temperance connection: The temperance society that shot through the US like a comet in the 1840s (with a template paralleled by Alcoholics Anonymous 90 years later) was named after the distillery-owning George Washington.
The other story concerns ice cream sundaes. Why are they called sundaes? The term apparently derives from Sundays. But what is an ice cream Sunday? It's an ice cream soda of the type that you consume on a Sunday. Why don't you consume standard ice cream sodas on Sundays? Because soda water is sometimes used as a mixer with alcohol, so its sale on Sundays had to be proscribed, of course. (Here is the book from which this information is drawn, according to the linked article.)
Friday, May 11, 2007
Khat in Finland
Of the twenty drugs assessed in The Lancet's recent review of potential harms from drug abuse (see the Vice Squad post from March 25, 2007), the least harmful drug was khat. The relative safety of khat, however, does not prevent it from being illegal in the United States and most of Europe -- though khat is legal in Britain and the Netherlands. Khat is most popular, of course, with Somalians and other East Africans.
One place that has seen a large increase in seizures of illegal khat imports in recent years is, curiously enough, Finland. Why does Finnish customs seize so much more khat than does Sweden, or France? One reason noted in the linked article is that Finland cares more than other countries do about reducing khat smuggling. But why care, why view khat as a problem? The answer from the linked article: "Finnish customs considers khat smuggling to be a problem because it diverts resources that could be used for investigating more serious crimes." So the Finns put resources into fighting khat because fighting khat diverts crime-fighting resources away from serious crimes. Got it.
To be fair (or at least more fair), there is something that I find almost charming in the Finnish approach. When they catch a khat courier at the airport, they impose (but do not collect) a fine, and return the smuggler the same day. No languishing in jail for these dangerous drug criminals. A crime investigator for Finnish Customs is quoted in the linked article explaining why harsher sanctions are not imposed: 'The use of tough coercive measures would be unreasonable, because the couriers are usually foreigners who have been deceived into the activity, to some extent.' This is the same approach used in the US by the DEA, right?
Legal Absinthe in the US
After nearly a century of prohibition, absinthe has found its way back to the European legal mix. But in the US, absinthe sales have remain proscribed. A close relative trades legally under the brand name Absente, however -- the recipe for Absente does not involve the use of (grande) wormwood, the ingredient that was blamed (probably incorrectly) for absinthe-related harms. (The high alcohol content and the standard failings of humanity were probably the real culprits.)
But now a new version of absinthe has received official imprimatur for sales in the US. The innovative distillation has a strong pedigree, being crafted by the absinthe-obsessed Ted Breaux, whose research suggests that Belle Epoque-era absinthe contained essentially no thujone (the worrisome compound in wormwood), nor did it inherit the bitterness of wormwood. Mr. Breaux could thus fashion a drink, perhaps, that would both be true to the tradition of high-quality absinthes while meeting US legal muster. Now the product of his efforts, distilled in France, is available in the US under the brand name lucid. Here's a review following its recent debut; lucid is 62% alcohol, which is not a particularly strong concoction by absinthe standards.
If you think that Vice Squad spends a bit too much time with absinthe, stay well clear of these blogs.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
The Posadas Case: The Way Ahead for Vice Advertising?
Vice Squad has long been concerned (see, for instance, the August 26, 2004 post on Rubin v. Coors (1995)) that interpretations of the First Amendment that preclude stringent regulation of commercial advertising for legal goods will mean less freedom, not more, as the government will choose to keep vice goods (such as marijuana or heroin, for instance) illegal rather than adopt a legalization scheme that must tolerate unfettered advertising. There is one Supreme Court decision, however, that I think points a way forward for legalized vice. The decision was rendered in Posadas de Puerto Rico Associates v. Tourism Company, 478 U.S. 328 (1986). The Posadas case concerns limitations on casino advertising in Puerto Rico.
When the legislature of Puerto Rico legalized casino gambling in the late 1940s, it simultaneously prohibited advertising by the casinos directed towards residents of Puerto Rico. Advertising aimed at foreign tourists, however, was permitted. By a 5-4 majority, the US Supreme Court, employing the Central Hudson test, upheld the legitimacy of the advertising restrictions. (The advertising restrictions that were upheld were not the full set adopted by the Puerto Rican legislature, but a narrower version that had been constructed by Puerto Rican courts.) The majority opinion also argued that “the greater power to completely ban casino gambling necessarily includes the lesser power to ban advertising of casino gambling.” This commonsense notion has attracted a good deal of critical commentary (including some from later opinions by Supreme Court justices), and indeed, appears to fly in the face of the Central Hudson approach to regulating commercial speech.
In many circumstances, the existence of a “greater” power need not imply the existence of a “lesser” power. For instance, capital punishment for convicted murderers is constitutional in the United States, while the (arguably) lesser power of extreme torture is not constitutional. (That is, torture would be inconsistent with the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishments.) But in terms of vice regulation, the power (if it exists) to ban one of the traditional vices probably should include the lesser power of legalizing the vice while controlling the advertising of the vice, as the Posadas case suggests for casino gambling. A legal-sales-but- controlled-advertising regime essentially consists of an offer from the government to license sellers, conditional on their willingness to refrain from specified types of advertising. The threat not to license the vices in the absence of ad controls is quite credible, in that the traditional vices legally can be banned today, and often have been banned in the past. (And of course, many vice- related activities currently are prohibited in the US.) Such conditional offers, therefore, have a strong claim for promoting both individual liberty and speech, relative to the alternative that would arise if such licenses were not available. A conditional license to sell ketchup only in the absence of advertising cannot similarly be argued to be speech-and-liberty enhancing – a threatened ban on ketchup is neither credible nor traditional. Therefore, a Posadas-like acceptance of the constitutionality of conditional vice licenses need not imply that the government can more generally confer benefits only if speech rights are waived. (On this point in particular, though also for this post more generally, I am indebted to Mitchell N. Berman, “Commercial Speech and the Unconstitutional Conditions Doctrine: A Second Look at ‘The Greater Includes the Lesser.’” Vanderbilt Law Review 55(3): 693-796, April 2002; the working paper version can be found here.) The traditional vices have proven their exceptionalism from most other types of consumer goods and services over centuries, and it is appropriate that the legal regime recognize that exceptional history.
Monday, May 07, 2007
Lazy Post, Referencing A Book Review that I Managed to Read
That is, I managed to read the review, not the book -- even this is a triumph for those of us who set the bar low enough. The review, written by Jonathan Miles, appeared in Sunday's New York Times. The book is Allan Brandt's The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America. Miles admits to being a smoker, and hence is a bit perplexed, perhaps, by a curious omission within the rather thorough volume: "Brandt, a professor of the history of medicine at Harvard Medical School, canvasses giant chunks of terrain here — the culture, science, politics, law and global spread of the cigarette, to cite just his section headings — without ever pausing to examine the central, vexing paradox of smoking: that in return for death, cigarettes give pleasure." Miles concludes his lively review on a similar note:
Additional tort action, and ramped-up regulation now that tobacco support has become more of a political liability than an advantage, seems likely to further chip away the number of domestic smokers until just a few of us will remain, huddled in the rain 500 feet away from any possible contact with others, impoverished from taxes and life insurance premiums and the inability to pass a nicotine-finding blood test in order to get a job. Yet the essential conundrum, succinctly stated in a 1961 tobacco-industry memo, will remain: “There are biologically active materials present in cigarette tobacco. These are: a) cancer causing; b) cancer promoting; c) poisonous; d) stimulating, pleasurable and flavorful.”
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Hemp March in Moscow
As some of you might know, today was the 2007 Global Marijuana March day. Apparently, groups from 232 cities all over the world signed up for it. One such city was Moscow (see a brief and bland English language report here). The initial meeting of the march participants took place near the McDonald's on the touristy Old Arbat in downtown Moscow. Don't know about other cities (there has been remarkably little in the news about this event) but Moscow police did not treat the march participants kindly. A Russian-language news source reported the following events. By the time 20 or so participants gathered near McDonald's, the Moscow finest already awaited them. As soon at the would-be marchers unfolded their "Legalize marijuana" banner the police pounced on them and detained six people. The friends of the detained tried to free them. After a skirmish, the detainees were taken to the nearby police station. Their friends came up to the station too and started calling the detainees on cell phones. Suddenly, the police became really violent knocking down those who stood near the police station, twisting their arms, hitting their heads against nearby cars and walls, and dragging them inside the station, where the beating apparently continued. One of the detained was beaten up severely during the interrogation. Another detainee suffered an asthma attack and after a considerable delay was taken to a hospital. The police, however, does not acknowledge hurting anybody.
In truth, the police actions are not really surprising, given its treatment of other recent events (see, for example, here and here) organized without approval of the authorities. It is unclear, however, why they keep doing that. Without police brutality, few people would probably notice these events, at least not as much, although perhaps this brutality that by now has come to be expected deters many potential participants.
Happy Hooker Harumphs
Xaviera Hollander, author of The Happy Hooker and many subsequent books, is perturbed by some of the developments in the ongoing "DC Madam" case:
There is a code of ethics in prostitution. You are not supposed to divulge names. That is the lowest thing you could do in this profession.In the linked article, Ms. Hollander provides further observations about her former trade. She thinks that the internet-assisted ease of having one's sexual fantasy catered to has made the whole enterprise less exciting. Xaviera now operates a bed and breakfast (sans sexual services) in Amsterdam.
Meanwhile, a former New York City police officer who attempted to shake down Xaviera Hollander decades ago remains in prison -- not for the shakedown, but for two murders. He is 76 years old and has been in prison for 32 years. A court ordered a reluctant parole board to release him, but was overturned by a higher court last month. Both the shakedown and the murders (of people involved in underground prostitution) are arguments to provide scope for legal, regulated prostitution, but arguments that somehow have not achieved much political salience in the US.
Friday, May 04, 2007
Rewriting History to Avoid a WTO Ruling
The US mostly won the internet gambling case that was brought against it by Antigua and Barbuda. (Here's a Vice Squad post on the matter from April 9, 2005 -- somehow the permalinks only bring you to the proper month, however, so there's some scrolling down to get to April 9.) But in the relatively small matter of betting on horse races, Antigua prevailed. The problem is that the US allows some internet betting on horse racing, but does not extend the required 'national treatment' -- a level-playing field between domestic and foreign suppliers -- to offshore internet gambling purveyors. The US has been dragging its heels (as per this February 7, 2007 post) in making the adjustments to its laws that are necessary to bring them into compliance with its WTO non-discrimination commitments.
The latest US dodge is to deny that it ever made such a commitment with respect to gambling. There was an error, you see, when the US failed to explicitly exclude gambling, as was its intention, when it signed on to liberalized trade in recreational services some 14 years ago. Apparently no one noticed the oversight until just now; conveniently enough, amending the agreement to the original intention will also nullify the force of the adverse WTO ruling. Glad we got that misunderstaning cleared up.
This sort of thing could catch on -- surely Russia did not really intend to sell Alaska to the US?
Thursday, May 03, 2007
Free Trade and Vice
Dani Rodrik, Tyler Cowen, and others, have been debating the merits of trade controls. (Economists tend to support most movements towards freer trade, so to non-economists the debate might sound a bit like arguments among various Trotskyite factions.) But their debate presents another opportunity to talk about the intersection between trade policy and vice policy. (Here’s one of the more recent harpings on this issue, from December 3, 2006.) The bottom line, for me, is that for the traditional vices, I am very chary of allowing commitments to free trade to override domestic vice controls.
The fact that alcohol, tobacco, gambling, drugs, and other traditional vices have been problematic for hundreds of years is strong evidence that these are not ordinary commodities. Any standard liberal policy orientation, whether it be towards free trade, free speech (advertising), or free competition (antitrust), comes under significant pressure when faced with these troubling habit-forming goods. To insist on one-size-fits-all policies, applicable to ketchup and alcohol alike, is apt to produce outcomes that are sufficiently undesirable that liberalism in general (including free trade) might be discredited, or motivate a policy shift to strikingly illiberal policies (such as prohibition) targeted specifically at the vicious goods or activities. Vice should operate as an exception – a limited exception, but a clear one – from many of our more general policy doctrines.
Unfettered trade typically serves the interests of domestic consumers, while lowering the relative prices of imported goods. When it is vice goods that are among the imports, however, we are much less certain that consumers, as well as society more generally, are made better off. The lower prices will lead to more consumption, and if that consumption is both “rational” and does not have significant externalities attached, then the usual presumption that domestic consumers are made better off should apply. But vice goods are sufficiently marked by both potential departures from rational consumption and by externalities that there is good reason to question the standard presumption. The laudable ends that generally are served by commitments to free trade (and free competition and free speech) are not similarly served in their application to vice.
So I believe in vice policy exceptionalism. In practice the question often will amount to whether the exception is made by banning the vice good (and its advertising and trade, of course), or by allowing the vice while controlling competition, trade, and advertising. That is, vice policy exceptionalism is all but inevitable: the only issue is what form it will take. I prefer that vice constitute a differently treated legal activity, while prohibitonists prefer to make vice goods exceptional via illegality. Allowing free trade to trump domestic vice policies will tend to bolster the hand of the prohibitionists, perhaps leading to more constraints upon trade than my version of vice policy exceptionalism. But this is dangerously close to the sort of political argument at which economists have no expertise!
Much more can be said along these lines, especially concerning the possibility that allowing a vice policy exception will result in an expanded definition of vice, one that covers all goods and services that meet with official displeasure -- thereby hollowing out our overall commitments to free speech, trade, and competition. But that discussion is for another day.
The current manifestations of this debate have been a Vice Squad staple. They include the US-Antigua internet gambling case (March 31, 2007), EU alcohol rules (February 19, 2007), and snus (February 7, 2006).
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Isn't that just tobacco? As it turns out, no: devil's tobacco is the common name for Lobelia tupa, a pretty perennial plant native to Chile. Apparently devil's tobacco, when smoked, acts as a type of hallucinogen. And therefore, of course, smoking Lobelia tupa has become something of a fad among some Chilean college students.
Smoking and Gambling....
...they go together like, well, they go together. Every now and then there is a claim that the institution of a public smoking ban hits the indoor gambling business particularly hard -- check out a few of the linked stories from this webpage. Bingo parlors in the UK are among the latest to feel the pressure of public smoking bans: "Annual accounts released yesterday [April 30] reported pre-tax profits for Carlton Clubs was down by 62 per cent on last year, with smokers preferring to stay at home rather than face an evening without the chance to light up." The linked article reports that Carlton's figures indicate that 70 percent of regular bingo players are smokers. At least in the short-run, it appears that those who want to reduce gambling prevalence might want to lobby for smoking bans in casinos and other gambling halls.
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Zapoi in Izhevsk
The alcohol situation in Russia continues to astound. (For earlier examples, see this November 19, 2003 post of acute alcohol poisonings, and co-blogger Mike's April 14, 2007 response to some dodgy statistics.) In the April, 2007 issue of Addiction is a report on drinking in the city of Izhevsk, in the Urals. The researchers wanted to find out about problematic drinking behaviors, going beyond per capita consumption statistics and standard "binge" queries (5 or more drinks in one sitting for men is the usual binge criterion.) They interviewed people who lived with adult men, and asked these people -- usually the spouse -- about the man's drinking. (They interviewed the 1,750 male subjects themselves, too, but it is well-known that people significantly under-report their own drinking.)
The findings that are most unsettling, at least to me, concern two worrisome drinking behaviors, surrogates and zapoi. By 'surrogates,' the researchers are referring to the consumption of alcohol mixtures that are not intended to be imbibed, such as colognes; 8 percent of the men were reported to have drunk surrogates in the past year, and 4 percent drank them weekly. Remember, these data concern men who live with other people -- the homeless and men who live alone are excluded from the study -- and hence might even be expected to have less troublesome drinking habits than the average male. The authors note that the appeal of these unpalatable surrogates is their combination of low price and high alcohol content, allowing the surrogates to provide a fixed quantity of alcohol at something like 1/6 what it would cost by consuming vodka. Almost 4 out of 5 of the men drank vodka or other spirits over the course of a year, with about 20 percent consuming on a weekly basis.
Oops, I took a little break before I discussed zapoi. OK, that sentence is supposed to represent a very weak self-referential joke, because the Russian word zapoi refers to a sort of extended binge, a two-day or longer period in which someone withdraws from normal life in favor of drinking and continuous drunkenness. Ten percent of the men in the study had an episode of zapoi in the previous year. Wow -- and again, it is likely that the real alcohol devotees are not even included in the sample.
Russian alcohol surrogates crop up in Moskva-Petushki, a Soviet-era underground, alcohol-soaked tale that includes some recipes for making exotic drinks (such as "Tear of a Komsomol Girl") from surrogates. As I recall, one instruction is something along the lines of "Purify a can of varnish," leading to a discussion of how it can be that in the Soviet Union, almost no one knows how Pushkin died, but everyone knows how to purify a can of varnish.