Understanding ecig politics all comes back to snus

by Carl V Phillips

Chris Snowdon has a very nice post today, recounting the history of the UK quango, ASH, in getting snus banned in Britain (and as a result, all the rest of the EU, save Sweden). His thesis is that the attacks by ASH and others on e-cigarettes are history repeating. On this page, I have frequently made the same point more generally. In particular, I pointed out the foolishness of expecting U.S. government agencies to voluntarily “do the right thing” regarding e-cigarettes, as many have insisted they will (for reasons I cannot fathom), given what they did to smokeless tobacco.

The key point here, which many pro-vaping partisans do not seem to realize, is that smokeless tobacco and e-cigarettes are almost exactly the same from an overview perspective. Obviously they may be quite different in terms of how much a particularly individual likes the product. But from the perspective of health, THR, and policy decision-making, they are functionally identical. I cringe every time I see someone claim “e-cigarettes are not like tobacco products.” Even setting aside the fact that many people, quite reasonably, consider e-cigarettes to be tobacco products, this is flatly wrong. For most purposes, notably including the context where that claim is most often made, regulation, e-cigarettes are almost exactly like the second-most popular tobacco product.

Anyone who suggests otherwise either does not understand the basic facts of the matter that they are opining about, or they are up to something dishonest. The latter might consist of rent-seeking, attempted misdirection, trying to conceal past mistakes, or some weird personal pique about the products. Whichever it is, it is nothing they can admit to. Perhaps more important, it is potentially revelatory about their real attitudes and goals, as in the case Chris chronicles.

It seems to me (though I think the question deserves more thought and analysis) that the difference in social attitudes and outcomes, regarding e-cigarettes versus smokeless tobacco, is almost entirely a matter of path dependence. That is, the success of anti-THR efforts depended on what established consumption based they were dealing with. In cultures (or, more importantly, jurisdictions) where smokeless tobacco use was still well-established when the tobacco control monster seized power, they could not eliminate smokeless tobacco any more than they could eliminate smoking. But where smoking had crowded out smokeless tobacco use almost completely, or it had never been popular, it was possible for them to ban it. Where use was part of the dominant culture (Scandinavia) it was also impossible to trick everyone into believing using it posed measurable health risk. In cultures where use was concentrated in a disempowered minority that is scorned by the dominant culture (North America), it was possible to vilify it though not stop it.

(The interesting case that could refine these observations, it seems to me, is Finland (and to a lesser extent, Denmark), where a ban and vilification were implemented despite established use and cultural similarities to Sweden. Perhaps that can just be explained by the more autocratic governance there. I invite those with a better understanding of the comparative polisci to comment.)

But because of this campaign vilification, even though it could not shut down established use, did create a barrier that shut down the consumers’ voice and tricked non-consumers into not giving the products serious consideration. Thus there has been little push-back against bans. By contrast, e-cigarettes became established in many places before the vilification campaign got started, and thus there is resistance to bans throughout the Western world (i.e., anyone who shares news sources and social networks with the USA, UK, and other centers of e-cigarette use). In some non-Western culture, by contrast, it appears that the vilification could work as well as it did with snus.

The EU snus ban happened because a major U.S. manufacturer set up shop in Scotland and, being a major manufacturer, could be shut down by special interest lobbyists. E-cigarettes were introduced under the radar and the tobacco control monster was slow to react and did not have an easy target. By the time they got organized on the matter, consumption was well-established in many jurisdictions. The great innovation in e-cigarettes in the mid-2000s was not the technology (that was trivial and had long already existed) but the accidental unleashing of a manufacturing and supply system that was all capillaries rather than depending on arteries. If one company had been able to establish and enforce IP for the technology, it seems likely they (and thus the products) would have been squashed by those in power.

That does suggest one fundamental difference in the regulation of e-cigarettes versus snus, which is contrary to the pure path-dependence hypothesis. It is not a difference in goals or motivations — there is really no room for those to differ — but in practicality. As I and others have pointed out from the dawn of existential threats to the established e-cigarette supply, the consumables for e-cigarettes are trivial to make and smuggle. An amusing claim in the history Chris reported in his post is one observer (apparently clueless about the technology he claimed to be expert on) insisting that if people wanted to use smokeless tobacco, they could always extract the tobacco from cigarettes. Um, yuck (not to mention how much more expensive it would be).

Making good smokeless tobacco takes some skill and effort, and making it inexpensive takes mass production. Not so for e-cigarette consumables. It is like the difference between wine and cocktails. Yes, anyone can create something that is technically wine, but few are so dedicated to wine that they would settle for that if the selling of good wine were prohibited, but other alcoholic beverages remained available. By contrast, while someone might be happy to pay the premium to enjoy professionally-made cocktails, replicating most of them at home is just a matter of making the effort to get the ingredients and a short learning curve.

In other words, it is not all that difficult for authoritarians to crush the arteries that are necessary for getting adequate supplies of high-quality inexpensive snus. But they cannot stop the e-cigarette capillaries. It is not even necessary to compare cross-culturally to see that, since a few places (notably Australia) have demonstrated it side-by-side. But, again, this merely constrains what must be done differently in order to pursue different goals for the two product categories; it does not suggest there is any legitimate reason to have different goals, or any reason to believe actors who attack one will ever honestly and genuinely be positive about the other.

12 responses to “Understanding ecig politics all comes back to snus

  1. What enforcement resources do you suppose the US government will divert in order to crush an e-cigarette black market? The FDA’s Tobacco Products Center has 691 employees at present. (I know because I asked them.) Will Customs, ATF, US Marshals, DOJ, FBI, etc. all have to grow to deal with this newly illegalized activity?

    • Carl V Phillips

      It is indeed LOL when Zeller et al claim that they will be able to enforce this, as I have discussed elsewhere. Customs will probably seize products as a matter of course when they find them, but they only inspect a small fraction of imports. I really doubt they will prioritize it. The normal law-enforcement agencies might charge someone if they happen to discover a violation while pursuing someone for something else. But since possession will not be criminalized, they are not going to find much. It is difficult to imagine they would make an effort to investigate. I guess I can imagine some token effort, where FDA accidentally detects a major distribution channel — blind luck given their limited capacity — and asks the FBI to raid a location. But that will have pretty trivial impact other than teaching people how to better keep their heads down.

      • natepickering

        It’s just further evidence (as if we needed any) that tobacco controllers do not live in the real world. Their policies and initiatives only need to

        A) Be popular amongst the other denizens of the Tobacco Control Echo Chamber; and

        B) Be consistent with the relevant passages in the Big Book of Tobacco Control Dogma and Orthodoxy.

        As we’ve discussed previously, real-world consequences do not ever inform tobacco control thinking, even insofar as their own screamingly obvious inability to implement and enforce the measures that they themselves propose. And if some interlocutor actually raises the point, they will simply hand-wave it away with some made-up numbers freshly plucked from their collective excretory orifice.

  2. True, but they might elect to train a vast number of nicotine sniffing dogs.

    • Carl V Phillips

      Again, priorities. If they did that, I am sure they would prefer to train them to attack nicotine consumers.

      • natepickering

        This would be a non-starter, as tobacco controllers would never countenance innocent young canines being lured into a lifetime of nicotine addiction.

  3. The banning of snus imports, (people can still import for personal use, but it is extremely expensive because of excise), was an easy thing in Australia, as those who used this form of smokeless tobacco were very few, and the vast majority didn’t know that snus even existed. Culturally many indigenous people used chewing tobacco, (some used a local plant mixed with wood ash to make pituri), but when tobacco was brought to Australia they moved onto using this as it was more readily available to people living in towns and cities. (There is a whole history behind this that is too much to go into in detail here, but this blog is an excellent read for those interested :https://prehistoricdrugs.wordpress.com/category/individual-drugs/pituri/

    The ignorance of the cultural use of oral nicotine products, or the dismissing of this cultural practice, by those in the tobacco control industry, due to racism and plain old snobbery, made it very easy for those same people to ban other oral smokeless tobacco products, such as snus.

    It is also a matter of timing, snus was banned from sale in Australia before the advent of the internet, so those that protested were a tiny minority, and had no voice whatsoever in the formulation of this policy. With vaping it is different, because even though vapers are a tiny minority in Australia, we are a very vocal minority, and with social media, we do get our voices heard, (although we are often ignored or vilified by those in the tobacco control industry), and with help from vapers across the globe, we can amplify our voice. The tobacco control industry is being exposed for the lies that have been told concerning smoking, smokeless tobacco products, (snus, snuff, etc), and the lies it is now telling about vapour products.

  4. Roberto Sussman

    How do other forms of smoking tobacco (cigars, pipes, hookas) fit in the discussion? There are epidemiological studies showing they are less hazardous than cigarettes (specially hookas), so they should fit the THR framework.

    My impression is that tobacco controllers pay little attention to cigars and pipes (and thus do not interfere in their markets) because they are used only in reduced minority “cultures” or niches (and practically 100% by men). Cigars smokers should be relatively affluent because good cigars are expensive and are status symbols (politicians like them, even anti-smoker Bill Clinton used a cigar in his foreplay with Ms Lewinsky in the smoke free White House). Pipes and pipe tobacco are less expensive, but pipe smoking is regarded as an old fashioned habit for older men. Hookas are a different matter: they are becoming fashionable (specially among young folks) because they are “exotic” and involve socializing. For this reason hookas have entered the radar of the controllers, which explains a lot of *really* gross vilification and lies spread on them. This is ironical because hookas are probably the safest form of tobacco smoking (it does not involve combustion, smoke is diluted by water and there is no “transverse” second hand smoke). As paradoxical as it seems to those not familiar with the warped logic of Tobacco Control, the controllers vilify tobacco products with an intensity that is directly proportional to their safety !!

    It seems to me that tobacco controllers would like ST and e-cigs to evolve into minority niches similar to those of cigar and pipe smoking. These forms of smoking are not going to spread massively to replace cigarettes, so they pose no threat to the hegemony of Tobacco Control and to the huge flows of money it gets from the public sector (including MSA funds) and from the pharmaceutical industry. On the other hand, ST and e-cigs have the potential of becoming the preferred tobacco products at a global level, and thus represent a direct threat to Tobacco Control. Even if only 20% of cigarette smokers make the switch in a few years, it is still hundreds of millions of consumers. Since TC cannot destroy the e-cig and snus markets, perhaps controllers are aiming at marginalizing these markets into reduced local “cultures” or jurisdictions. The funny thing is that nothing of this has anything to do (whatsoever) with health issues.

    • natepickering

      If I’m not mistaken, flavored cigars (though I’m not sure what “flavored” actually means) are to be banned under the pending FDA deeming regulations. Obviously, this is in keeping with dearly-held tobacco control orthodoxy that states any non-tobacco flavoring of a tobacco product is expressly ans solely intended to make little kids smoke.

      • Roberto Sussman

        I’ve smoked good cigars for 30 years, so I know the cigar smoking culture very well. Regular and seasoned cigar smokers dislike flavored cigars simply because they are low quality cigars (not hand made) and because we enjoy the natural tobacco taste and smell of a good cigar (for this reason we puff without inhaling). Banning flavored cigars may affect those cigarette smokers seeking a small cigar that “looks like” a cigarette, or the occasional smoker (or even non-smoker) seeking a frivolous cigar. This is the target public for which these cigars are marketed. A tiny minority of this market may be teenagers exploring cigarette smoke, just as they explore pot and booze. The Tobacco Control contention that flavored cigars are specially marketed for “kiddies” lacks empiric support, but as we know, empiric evidence is irrelevant for the controllers and regulators. What matters for them is keeping their crusade going on (and thus the keeping the generous gravy train flowing).

        • natepickering

          An occasional little cigar is the extent of my tobacco smoking (and by occasional, I mean a 5-pack of Swishers lasts me about a month). I find there are still times when I quite enjoy those, unlike cigarettes, which just seem more unappetizing each time I smoke one, which is probably only two or three times a year at this point.

          As for the flavored ones, I have no idea what they taste like, as when I smoke tobacco I’m sort of looking for tobacco flavor. But it seems generally like a product used by such a vanishingly small number of people (to be honest, I suspect a large percentage of the ones that are sold are immediately gutted and the tobacco replaced with cannabis) that banning it will produce no perceptible changes in the real world. Granted, this doesn’t make such a ban any more tolerable or defensible, but it’s interesting that FDA seems to only take decisive action on the smoked tobacco products that are used by the fewest people.

  5. Roberto Sussman

    I’ve tried small flavored cigars a few times just for curiosity. They made my throat sore and tasted awfully (which of course is subjective). Those around me liked the aroma. This effect is similar to cheap heavily flavored pipe tobacco. I doubt that teenagers like these flavored products, but the FDA and the controllers badly need something to prohibit and the combination “flavors + kids” provides a convenient scare excuse and the extra funding.

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