Among the many consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to control it, there has been an epidemic of whataboutery. The starting point is the claim “we have locked down the entire economy to reduce the number of deaths from Covid-19, but we tolerate comparably large numbers of deaths from X”. Popular candidates for X include smoking, road crashes and influenza. In most, though not all, cases, the inference is that we should accept more deaths from the pandemic. Indeed, the majority of those using this argument are also opposed to any proposal to do more about the various examples of X they cite
I’m going to take the contrapositive, and argue that the inconsistency pointed out here should be resolved by taking stronger action to reduce avoidable deaths from a wide range of causes, with the primary examples being road deaths and smoking.
While whataboutery on these topics typically suggests that society has made a decision to tolerate deaths from these causes, the reality is that there have been increasingly stringent measures to reduce them, adopted over many years, and that in both cases, the ultimate objective (explicit in some jurisdictions, implicit in others) is to reduce deaths to zero. In the case of roads, this aim is expressed in Vision Zero, adopted initially in Sweden and subsequently in a variety of other places. The UK government aims to end smoking by 2030, and most governments have interim targets which imply ultimate elimination of smoking.
With or without explicit targets, the policy approach everywhere has been much the same. Restrictions aimed at reducing the risk in question have been introduced gradually over many years, with each new restriction providing a starting point for the next. In Australia’, for example, partial bans on tobacco advertising were introduced in the late 1980s. These were followed by complete ad bans, then by compulsory health warnings in small print, and finally by a requirement that cigarette packets should display gruesome photos of the consequences of smoking. At the same time, from an initial situation where smoking was universal, it has been progressively restricted in all public spaces, and where children may be exposed (as in private cars).
There is indeed an inconsistency here. If the restrictions in place now are justified in terms of a balance between health costs, damage to non-smokers and the restrictions on the rights of smokers, they would have been even more justifed 30 or 50 years ago, when the damage done by smoking was much greater. Coming back to Covid whataboutery, the inconsistency is not between accepting deaths from one source and not another, it’s between the urgent action necessitated by the pandemic and the slow pace adopted in other cases.
The slowness with which policies aimed at ending smoking, or road deaths, is easily explained. Governments have introduced them at a pace that avoids substantial political costs, and the risk of sustained non-compliance. In the case of smoking, for example, it is necessary to deal both with powerful and unscrupulous tobacco companies, using every available tool to resist controls, and with a large addicted population, some (though not all) of whom have no desire to quit.
The success (so far) of lockdowns in controlling Covid, and their general acceptance outside the US, suggests that we should move more rapidly to eliminate public health risks, even where this involves coercive measures to stop people endangering others, and to prevent young people from endangering themselves. For example, partial bans on smoking in public places, or in the presence of children, should be made total. A more ambitious proposal of this kind would be to raise the smoking age, one year at a time, so that young people currently under the legal age would not be allowed to smoke until they were, say, 25 (hardly anyone begins smoking as a mature age adult, which is in itself an indication that it is not a choice open to a rational defence).
In the case of road deaths, the most obvious measures are lower speed limits in urban ares, and a greater willingness to take dangerous drivers off the road permanently. These measures will be adopted eventually – the only question is how many innocent lives will be lost before they are.
fn1. The tobacco companies not only lobbied directly, and funded a variety of front groups (astroturf smokers rights groups and free-market think tanks), but fought Australia’s packaging laws through international trade actions, ginned up by bribing governments or exploiting the Investor-State Dispute Settlement clauses of trade agreements. They were defeated, but almost certainly succeeded in deterring poorer countries, which could not afford such fights, from following Australia’s lead.