Joseph Hart 21 November 2023


The Australian philosopher Kenneth Minogue had many interesting things to say about activism. In his 1963 book, The Liberal Mind, he talks of liberals waging battles against the various dragons of their time, such as despotic kingships, religious intolerance, slavery, and other major social and political ills.

However, once these battles were won, some parties continued to seek out new and more minor conflicts. Minogue likens these characters to St. George, who, having vanquished dragons from his kingdom, still seeks the adrenaline and purpose of these righteous battles.

As time goes on, St. George unsheathes his sword, expecting to see dragons around every corner. However, there is a supply and demand problem, which means he needs to invent new enemies to crusade against. Soon, he starts imagining foes or even recasting well-meaning individuals into sworn enemies.

The World Health Organization

In many ways, we can see this pattern in the World Health Organization and other anti-tobacco groups and academics. While the dragons might not breathe smoke and fire like they once did, the activist’s need for an enemy means even harm-reduction products like vapes or nicotine pouches appear to have scales, wings, or a barbed tail.

I might even take things a step further than Minogue did in the 1960s and suggest that many of these people want the allure and kudos of beating a great foe, but without all the hard work and sacrifice that comes with earning that praise.

In the last few days, I came across an anti-tobacco academic on Twitter/X. He had dubbed himself a “warrior” but failed to prefix that accolade with the word “keyboard”. Probably just an error.

What is concerning about these individuals is their dogmatic belief in banning harm-reduction products and their propensity for misrepresenting the truth. Our brave and fearsome warrior claimed that EVALI deaths are linked with e-liquids, a claim that has been debunked thoroughly. It’s hard to imagine he doesn’t know this, but he continues to disrespect the public by spreading misinformation.

The problem with earning a reputation for deception, underhand practices, and a general sense of victimhood is that it undermines everything you say subsequently, which brings me to the next point.

A paper on intimidation

Our anti-tobacco warrior king cited a paper called, “They try to suppress us, but we should be louder”: a qualitative exploration of intimidation in tobacco control (Matthes, 2023). It’s a highly suggestive work that leaves the impression that speaking out against tobacco is a bit like being a journalist in Putin’s Russia.

To be clear, I’m not here to say that these events did not happen as they are described. I have no way of knowing if they are accurate or not. But let’s just say that I’ve read enough about Shell in Nigeria in the 90s to know that the darker side of the human psyche emerges where contracts and money are at stake. At worst, this criticism is just healthy scepticism.

The paper is based on interviews with less than 30 people. Participants were identified through an existing network and snowball sampling. Some people might have a major issue with that, but it’s just the nature of qualitative research within niche subjects.

What I would say is that:

  • The majority of the “intimidation” comes in the form of criticism online or in print
  • The criteria is whether the interviewer or a colleague has experienced something
  • Only three subjects say they are from high-income economies (see map below)
World Map by Income

I have a problem with people in high-income Western countries trying to co-opt the experiences and struggles of campaigners from less fortunate socioeconomic societies. It’s essentially stolen valour. I think the paper should clarify where these incidents occurred and, where possible, identify which companies are responsible. However, maybe these stories are more useful if they exist in a grey area of innuendo and gossip.

Final thoughts

Again, I want to make clear that the paper cited above was shocking, and the idea of being followed, surveyed, burgled, etc., gave me chills.

However, it is worth noting that the organisation behind the paper is Bath University’s Tobacco Control Research Group, which has recently taken more money from Michael Bloomberg.

Taking this report at face value means that someone from a network of ideologues knows someone who claims they have been the victim of tobacco industry interference.

All myths begin with a kernel of truth, including the legend of St. George. So, when a story is almost too good to be true, it might be part of a broader agenda of finding new dragons to slay.