Who is using the New York Times for a trial balloon about e-cigarettes?

by Carl V Phillips

Ok, I do not know for sure that there is more here than coincidence.  But when a corporate news operation that clearly positions itself as a manipulator of “public health” politics (even though they pretend to be neutral reporters) goes from being anti-THR to running two positive columns about e-cigarettes in three days, it seems like something is up.

Two days ago, the NYT’s always-brilliant columnist Joe Nocera ran this piece.  That perhaps signified nothing (other than one smart person writing a single smart column) since Nocera often write something contrary to the NYT’s preferred political views.  But today’s op-ed from a couple of random Columbia public health professors makes you say “hmmmm?”

The timing is the most interesting part.  Neither piece had a hook to the news of the week, other than mentioning the ongoing fights which are always there.  I am told that the Nocera column was made to happen due to the efforts of one THR advocate, who had been bugging him to run something like this for a while.  So why now?  The op-ed also seemed to be pulled out of random space to run on a particular day.

The authors of the op-ed have played no role in the discussion of THR, and are clearly not very well informed.  Their column reads like what someone with no knowledge of the subject (but who is a good extemporaneous researcher and writer) would put together based on a day or two of searching the web for information and making a few calls — i.e., it reads like a typical assigned news story, not like an op-ed by a subject matter expert.  This rules out the coincidence of a THR expert who has been trying to get an op-ed onto that page finally succeeding, coincidentally right after Nocera chose to write his column.  It suggests that the content and timing were engineered.  It is particularly telling that the authors lie about snus (declaring that it causes oral cancer), which suggests that the column was specifically engineered to be pro-ecig but sticking with the institutional bias of refusing to recognize that smokeless tobacco is the proven low-risk alternative.

The NYT has a glaring history of allowing itself to be used to float trial balloons for government, including the Bloomberg administration.  This suggests this is might be a move to try to defuse the current fight over regulating e-cigarettes in New York City.  They have been going round-and-round there about proposed regulations that would at least impose NYC’s “not allowed anywhere” smoking place restrictions on e-cigarettes.  There have also been threats to limit flavors and other measures that would cripple e-cigarettes’ competitiveness with cigarettes.  Naturally CASAA, the e-cigarette industry, and others have fought back against these, turning out hordes of people in opposition, and perhaps this has convinced a few people of the truth about THR.  But politicians never like to admit that they are capable of learning from the people, so they are looking for another way out.

So, they enlist The Paper of Record to test the waters and provide cover.  If there is an outcry against the columns, the prohibitionists stick to Plan A, and the people be damned.  If there seems to be support, though, then they use the columns as an excuse for changing their mind, and do not have to admit that their “facts” and plans were utterly shredded by the ordinary people who showed up at their hearings.  (Oh, and needless to say, when I refer to “outcry” and “support”, I am talking about the mood within the halls of the rich and powerful chatterers, not among the real stakeholders, people who will be affected by the regulation.)

Perhaps this is not the case, of course, though it seems to fit most of the facts perfectly [UPDATE: erroneous reference to this story deleted – see comment by Junican, and see also the proposed alternative version of the theory].  If this is not the game, the timing and content still suggest a concerted effort by someone to do something.  It might be nothing more than the NYT editors themselves wanting an excuse to reverse on anti-THR (but without endorsing smokeless tobacco, of course — it would just be too much for them to admit they had been wrong about that all this time).  Or it might be much bigger: perhaps, the same game, but the strings are being pulled by the ACS et al., or even the national government.  Either way, I would not suggest dismissing these as nothing more than one insightful, if unoriginal, column and just another random bit of almost-pro-THR pablum from someone in the public health industry.

6 responses to “Who is using the New York Times for a trial balloon about e-cigarettes?

  1. Pingback: Who is Using The NY Times For a Trial Balloon About E-cigarettes? • The Spinfuel News Blog

  2. Great article Carl. It sure does look like a plan to find out where the public is without really listening to it.

  3. exception: this story in today’s news pages

    Strange …… The last article that you linked to is dated 27th November. The first article was 6th December and the second was dated 8th December. The date of the third link actually further supports your argument.
    Just one problem:
    A public hearing before the Council is set for next Wednesday, and the Council is expected to vote on the proposal on Dec. 19, at its last scheduled voting meeting before new members and a new mayor take office.
    [From the last of the three links]

    Of dear! The last meeting before the incumbents depart! How could they resist going out with a lovely little ban to round off their tenure nicely?

    But wait! You could have a bit of fun with the dates of those articles. First the NYT puts the case for a ban, then follows that with two articles putting a stronger case against a ban. Who might have an interest in making waves? Could it be that the new mayor and administration do not want to be presented with a ‘fait accompli’, and be left to face the flak of the righteous indignation of vapers? (I say ‘righteous indignation’ because, at the moment, there is no doubt that vapers hold the high moral ground)

    • Carl V Phillips

      Oops. You are right. That article was in my daily feeds alongside the new op-ed, and I did not notice that for some reason I was getting an old article. Correction made in the post.

      The pattern that you identified better than I did seems plausible. I accept your amendment that if this is what I think it is, it may have nothing to do with who I thought it was about. Perhaps it is a case of sucking up to the new administration, which does have advantages when you are so strongly associated with the old one.

      Good catch.

  4. Yeah, or the coverage could just be because the city council meeting about banning vaping was the most well attended and contentious meeting of the year, aside form the one where all the people from the Upper East Side freaked out about having Citibike racks in their fancy neighborhood.

  5. As a NYer– and one experienced in “fighting city hall” (and learning that, like they say, you can’t, or not around here where hearings are for show only), I watched the council session almost wall-to-wall on local cable. And tho no provision was made for written public comment, managed to get a paper through to the committee and was pleased that a skeptical councilman, reading from it, challenged the Health Commissioner with several of my facts which the guy couldn’t counter and which left him changing the subject.

    I hold the vague hope that the Times saw the abject silliness of the arguments advanced by the ban contingent– stuff so silly even they couldn’t swallow it. I do believe they’re trying to influence the council which seemed hell bent on making this a fait accompli before Bloomberg is gone and some of the more rabid council critters themselves are term-limited out of office. BUT. From his own statements, the incoming mayor seems just as nannyish as the outgoing one and will undoubtedly keep the Health Commissioner in place so I question the degree to which pressure might be coming from his camp. Not saying it’s impossible, just questionable. But as far as the council giving a rat’s A about the anger of vapers, no way. Even if vapers were one-issue voters, there are too few of them to make a dent, there won’t be another election for 4 years, and nothing tempers the arrogance of They Who Know Best.

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