Can Early Warning Be Too Early?

February 12, 2014

Just because you can see a trend coming does not mean that you – or anyone else – can or will act on it. 

Let me give you an example.  I was listening to the radio where the audience was discussing a walk-out at a local school. The reason is unimportant. But what followed was a discussion of when, if at all, the listeners had been involved in something similar.

 Of course, most of them were angels – never, never, did such a thing.

But one caller admitted that, in 1963, she and some high school classmates had staged a walk out over the failure of the high school to establish – ready – a smoking room for seniors. Wow! Things have really changed. And that is the point.

In the past week, the Acting Surgeon General of the US called for a drop in the adult smoking rate from its current low of 18% to under 10% in the next decade. And smoking rates for US teenagers are at record lows. How did we get from there to here?

That question provides an interesting look at early warning. Consider the following partial time-line:

1963 – A group of Pennsylvania high school seniors calls for a smoking room for them. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, per capita consumption of cigarettes, which was rising during the 1950s, reaches its peak.

1964 – The US Surgeon General reports that cigarette smoking is a “health hazard”. Per capita cigarette consumption falls by 15% following the report.

1970 – Cigarette ads are banned from US television and radio.

1984 – The US Surgeon General calls for a “smoke-free” society by 2000.

1994 – Prices of cigarettes begin a two-decade long increase, driven by higher taxes. The Associated Press reports that “on average a pack of cigarettes that would have sold for about $1.75 20 years ago [in 1994] would cost more than triple that now [in 2014].”

1995 – California becomes the first state to ban smoking in public buildings.

1998 – The major US tobacco companies settle a case brought by 40+ states seeking compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses; smoking is banned on domestic US airline flights.

2014 – The US Surgeon General links smoking to diabetes, colorectal cancer and other problems. 

OK – cigarettes in the US are in trouble. When should the early warning have been sounded? 1964, 1970, 1994, this year?

 Probably in 1964. But, if you have sounded that alarm, who would have cared. Who would have acted? And what, if anything would they have done? In fact, why would they do anything? The eventual, inevitable decline would not take hold until well after they all had retired or died. So why should they act?

What I am trying to indicate is that an early warning system has to view the future in a time frame when you (and your firm) can and will take action. Look too far out and maybe you can see the future clearly. But no one else may care.

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