Constraining the Overton Window
Marewa Glover, director of the Centre of Research Excellence on Indigenous Sovereignty and Smoking in New Zealand, drew analogies between the Covid-19 response and tobacco control. Smokers are a minority, and most people don’t care how they are treated, she said.
Now, however, with similar strategies being employed to achieve compliance with governments’ Covid elimination policies, many are balking at being subjected to similar disrespect for their autonomy. “The authoritarian restrictions on what they can do and the dirty looks when not wearing a mask where it is being advised […] If you have experienced any of that, now you know what it is like to be a smoker in New Zealand or a vaper in Sweden where the public have been incited by government to police and punish people who disobey the rules,” Glover said.
As in the formulation of antismoking policies, authorities have been cherry-picking their counsel in the fight against the coronavirus, according to Glover. “Many public health experts have advised against lockdowns because of psychological and economic losses,” she said. “But their voices have been ignored—a familiar pattern from tobacco control.”
Glover warned that Covid has been exploited by power-hungry governments to blast open the Overton Window—the range of policies acceptable to society. “A public health argument now starting to be voiced is that if government and the public were willing to do what they had to do to eliminate Covid, then they should allow public health to employ similarly excessive strategies to end smoking and all nicotine products,” she said.
Glover further noted that New Zealand rammed through its new vaping regulation during the first lockdown. “We had to prepare and submit concerns during lockdown,” she noted. “Those who wanted to present to the Health Select Committee overseeing the proposed legislation had to do it via Facebook live—a prohibitive process for many.”
While New Zealand came out of the “quit-or-die-versus-harm-reduction brawl” better than Australia or India, according to Glover, she described the legislation as a “highway to prohibition.” Unlike tobacco, which can still be sold in corner stores, vapor products may be sold only in specialized shops, which require a license, she said. “The Ministry of Health can change the rules or increase the fees at any time, allowing it to strangle the vapor industry out of existence.” New Zealand, she cautioned, is not a model to be followed.