RealClear Policy: White House’s Omnishambles Tobacco Policy Gets Product Regulation Wrong

Cracking down on both vaping and smoking is short-sighted and dangerous.

Published by RealClear Policy

Russia just invaded another country and inflation is at a forty-year high, but the Biden administration has determined that the time is right for the federal government to declare war on smokers and vapers.

On the one hand, the White House is attacking smoking by harshly restricting the amount of nicotine tobacco companies can put in cigarettes. On the other, it is also ordering via the FDA that vaping giant Juul stops selling its electronic cigarettes. The justification for that move is the allegation that teenagers are susceptible to nicotine addiction through vaping.

If you had never heard of vaping before and you were told this news, you would be forgiven for thinking vaping is a type of smoking, and that more young people taking up e-cigarettes is fueling an epidemic of young smokers. In fact, the opposite is true.

E-cigarettes are 200 times less likely to cause cancer than smoking and 95% safer overall. Not only is vaping a healthier choice than smoking, but it is also the most effective tool ever discovered for helping people quit cigarettes. 74% of smokers who try to quit using e-cigarettes succeed. That makes it a much better quitting tool than nicotine patches, going cold turkey, and every other tested smoking cessation method. Millions of American vapers are former smokers.

Cracking down on both vaping and smoking is short-sighted and dangerous. They are not equivalent harms. The Biden administration is attacking both the disease and the cure. Banning Juul, one of the most popular vapes on the market, will no doubt force countless vapers back to smoking and potentially prevent millions of current and future smokers from making the switch to e-cigarettes.

Singling out Juul is an illegitimate move. It has little to do with sound health policy — it’s all about the optics. The Juul name is associated with vaping more than any other in the U.S. Banning Juul is a symbolic victory for the Biden administration. The agency is more concerned with virtue signaling and attacking big names than protecting American consumers from harm.

As it turns out, this approach might be unlawful, too. Less than 48 hours after the FDA’s announcement that Juul products would disappear from shelves, the e-cigarette maker successfully filed for a temporary hold in federal appeals court while it appeals the decision. Shamann Walton, a San Francisco regulator who pushed a local vape ban, justified the approach by saying: “If you cut off the head, that kills the body… of what’s harmful to our communities.” Walton unmasks the nanny-state agenda – Juul is under attack not because it did anything wrong or its products are uniquely dangerous, but because its brand represents vaping, which the FDA wants to eliminate altogether.

Attacking vaping to begin with is a flawed approach which reflects a much wider failure in the global tobacco policy debate, led by the World Health Organization (WHO) whose so-called ‘Tobacco Free Initiative’ spends most of its time handing out awards to politicians who have introduced taxes and bans to curb vaping, such as a former Indian health minister. That’s despite vaping being both tobacco-free and the best way out of a tobacco habit for millions.

Lumping smoking and vaping together shows up the fundamental flaws in taking a nanny-state approach to vices like tobacco and nicotine. If the Biden administration truly wanted to make Americans healthier, it would use the tried-and-tested method of informing, educating and providing access to quitting resources — including vapes. Instead, it resorts to pointing at things it does not like and trying to drown them in red tape.

It is impossible to regulate public health vices out of existence. The failed war on drugs has proved that. Even if cigarettes and e-cigarettes were banned tomorrow, there is little evidence to suggest there would be a large decrease in the number of smokers and vapers.

Instead, an enormous black market would pop up overnight. There is a black market for cigarettes already because current cigarette taxes already create a significant price difference between legal and illegal products, but if the White House continues down its current path, illicit trade could boom. People would be unable to buy their products from reputable, licensed vendors, and would instead have to trade on street corners, funnelling money into criminal gangs and no longer knowing what they are putting into their body.

If the government is concerned about teen addiction, the only solution is to properly enforce the law which already bans the sale of nicotine products to minors. By choosing instead to curb adults’ liberties, the Biden administration is betraying smokers, more than half of whom tried to quit in the last year.

Polling shows most smokers are unaware of the health benefits of switching from cigarettes to vapes, which is unsurprising given the volume of misinformation about vaping from the WHO and its fellow travelers, such as Michael Bloomberg. That’s where there is potential to make America healthier — by improving knowledge about and access to vaping, not restricting it.

The nanny-state mentality is a death spiral. Perhaps stoked by the Covid pandemic, politicians seem more certain than ever that it is their God-given duty to protect ordinary people from harmful products at all costs. There is no endpoint to that logic. The WHO believes that sugar should be taxed heavily and that women of childbearing age should not consume alcohol. 

Until we live in an ultra-sanitized society where we wear masks permanently and eat tasteless grey sludge, the nanny state beast will never be satisfied. Instead of indulging it, the Biden administration should treat smokers and vapers like the adults they are. By investing in education and resources rather than new regulations, the White House could help make America healthier without compromising on basic personal freedoms or growing the market for illegal products. 

Jason Reed is the spokesperson for Young Voices and a commentator on public health policy for a wide range of outlets. Follow him on Twitter @JasonReed624.

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