Earlier this week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) threatened to pull e-cigarettes from shelves if manufacturers do not control “widespread” teen use. Tobacco stocks surged on the news. Shares of Altria rose more nearly 7 percent to their best day since November, 2008. Philip Morris International increased about 3 percent. British American Tobacco shares increased nearly 6 percent to their best day since December, 2008.
This is no coincidence. With its attack on vaping, the FDA is coming to the aid of Big Tobacco, whose main product, to which vaping provides an attractive alternative, kills millions of Americans. Vaping, from all that appears, kills no one.
Williamson makes several new arguments. First, he notes the laziness of placing on manufacturers the burden of preventing sales to the under-aged:
[The FDA’s approach] calls to mind the predictably lazy federal approach to firearms regulation: Rather than do the hard work of running down street dealers and straw buyers, the ATF and the anti-gun lobby concentrate their efforts on firearms makers and licensed gun dealers, because it is easier to police the law-abiding than it is to police criminals. As with firearms, there are straw buyers of vaping products; and as with firearms, there is practically no serious law-enforcement effort to do anything about that. And as with firearms, there is a laborious but straightforward way to go about dealing with those who sell vaping products to minors and minors who buy them: investigate, arrest, charge, fine, repeat — and, if necessary, jail major offenders and revoke the business licenses of outlaw retailers.
You know: police work.
Second, Williamson offers this analogy:
If we had an affordable, easy-to-use device that eliminated 90 percent of the health problems associated with HIV or cervical cancer in exchange for relatively minor risks and side effects, we would consider it monstrous to withhold that product from the market. If we take seriously the idea that cigarette addiction is a disease, one that should be combatted with public-health measures, then we should consider withholding effective assistance fundamentally unethical — even if it is not effective for everyone, and even if there are some undesirable associated effects.
As a public-health tradeoff, vaping is a good deal. It is an obviously good deal.
Third, Williamson homes in on the class bias of the attack on vaping:
Smoking correlates very strongly with poverty and low educational achievement. People below the poverty line are about 60 percent more likely to smoke than people above the poverty line. Marginalized minorities such as Native Americans smoke at much higher rates than do nice white liberals in the suburbs, and people with GEDs smoke at nine times the rate of people with graduate degrees. People in rural areas and small towns in the South smoke at much higher rates than do people in Santa Monica.
Think of it this way: Smoking is a problem for people who shop at Walmart, but our public policies are made by the people who shop at Whole Foods. (Or who have their servants shop at Whole Foods.) And those people do not want to see young people in their communities doing something that even looks like smoking. . . .
Illegal, underage vaping is most visible — to the people who set the policy agenda — in areas where the parents generally don’t smoke and where the kids have discretionary money to spend on vices. Not surprisingly, those are the places where the most active and vocal political opponents of vaping tend to come from: Chuck Schumer of Park Slope, Richard Blumenthal of Greenwich, etc. Our policymaking conversation inevitably is dominated by those with higher incomes and more education — the dreaded “elites” of contemporary American English usage. And elite conversations tend to focus on elite interests: what’s going on in Greenwich, Conn., not what’s going on in Camden, Ark. . . .
The risks associated with vaping are trivial compared with the risks associated with smoking cigarettes. And vaping is an effective tool for weaning smokers off of cigarettes. And here we must consider a fact of critical importance: Cigarette addiction is not the same thing as nicotine addiction — nicotine is not what kills smokers. But the FDA nonetheless intends to stand in the way of JUUL and other products that could help millions of Americans, disproportionately poor, take an important step toward improving their health. Why? Because elite squeamishness about Greenwich kids aping low-rent habits has more weight in the policymaking mind than does reducing asthma and cancer in poor people in the downscale places where cigarette smoking is most prevalent.
Big Tobacco is delighted. So, it seems, are upper class liberals. The rest of us should be appalled.