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.