by Carl V Phillips
It has been a habit of many e-cigarette defenders to refer to recent chapters of the War on Tobacco as a war on nicotine, in part because they do not like their favored product being called a tobacco product. As for that motivation, whatever. But as for the statement, it was simply wrong.
The war on smoking in the USA morphed into a war on tobacco, which basically meant lumping in approximately-harmless smokeless tobacco with the not unreasonable original target of the war. This pretty much tracked the tobacco control industry’s professionalization (read: it went from being a noble — though obviously not universally embraced — hard-fought political cause to a venal business that had a license to print money and was constantly seeking new streams of revenue). Elsewhere in the world, the war was expanded to include Scandinavian smokeless tobacco as well as South Asian and other dip/chew products. Thus it was that for most of recent memory, the War on “Tobacco” was a ridiculously wealthy cabal of a few thousand people (with millions of useful idiots, of course) gunning for consumers and producers of smoked tobacco (tobacco, harmful), Western smokeless tobacco (tobacco, approximately harmless), and other oral products (not tobacco, often harmful).
When e-cigarettes finally became a major commercial product, after a remarkably long delay (which is, of course, a very interesting story, but not the present story), the Tobacco Warriors chose to add them to the list of targets. Thus the war became still more gerrymandered to include e-cigarettes. It was still a fairly well-defined single war, defined in much the same way that World War II was a war, despite really being two largely separate major wars and a few dozen border wars, tribal wars, and colonial struggles. The war is and was defined in terms of what a particular faction did: it was the Anglophone major powers, plus whoever happened to fight one of the same enemies for whatever reason, versus everyone they fought.
As with WWII, the current enemies of tobacco control (which, interestingly, can also be defined largely in terms of government action by the Anglophone major powers) are increasingly not allies of one another. Perhaps that is a tactical error, but they (we) do have rather conflicting interests. But the Tobacco Warriors themselves — a fairly tightly-knit group of agencies, sock puppets, and funders, working together and maintaining remarkable party discipline — make it a war. They also draw boundaries around it: Despite this being fought like every other awful war on drugs, the people involved barely overlap with the traditional Drug War cabals (and, indeed, often actively oppose them despite looking just like them, but that is yet another story).
You can muse about whether there is a better name than “the War on Tobacco” for whatever this is. But one candidate name that was clearly wrong was “War on Nicotine”. For one thing, not all of the targets of the war even contained nicotine. But more important, nicotine in isolation was their thing. It was their peeps who praised, touted, and sold nicotine in its “proper” medicinal form (never mind that NRT is primarily used for the same purpose as the products that are the main targets of their war). One of their favorite go-to tropes was still that cigarette companies’ introduction of lower-nicotine products in the 1970s was some evil plot.
And then something very strange happened. Very strange. Over the last few months, the U.S. FDA suddenly embraced a long-discredited anti-nicotine policy proposal. They announced a policy goal of forcing cigarette manufactures to lower the nicotine content of their products. (Well, legal cigarette manufacturers. The black market would inevitably replace the banned current products — one of the many reasons why this proposal is long-discredited.) Part of this has been an unending blast of government-sponsored anti-nicotine propaganda. The propaganda asserts — without any evidentiary or serious theoretical basis, needless to say — that forced nicotine reductions in cigarettes is the silver bullet that will “keep all new generations from becoming addicted blah blah blah”.
(Aside: I cannot overstate the strangeness and suddenness of this policy. Basically the only people who still supported this zombie idea were those who stood to profit from it. And then suddenly it was at the center of — indeed, is basically the entirety of — FDA’s tobacco policy. I strongly encourage someone who has the time and platform to make it worthwhile to investigate whether there is a money trail from the very small number of companies for whom this policy is an enormous windfall to the pockets of Price or Gottlieb — it is not like there is no history of corruption there. It is probably also worth checking Zeller and company, though they are not the variable here, so that seems like a long-shot. And the Trump campaign, of course, though given that the White House has not managed to put a government in place, it would have been quite a coup to push down such detailed policy from that far up the chain.)
Meanwhile there was the recent paper from Glantz’s shop, elegantly shredded by Chris Snowdon, in which the authors feebly attempt to tar NRT (their nicotine) as part of the evil machinations of the cigarette industry in the 1990s. I won’t even try to explain — there is nothing remotely defensible about it; read Snowdon if you want details. The importance is that Glantz’s current role is as a paid surrogate for FDA. This cannot be coincidence. FDA and tobacco control cannot comfortably fight a war on nicotine when the nicotine-iest products out there are their products that they have always embraced. So they need to muddy the waters around those products. What better way than to manufacture retroactive innuendo that NRT always was a brilliant cigarette industry plot that the hapless tobacco controllers fell for, and not the colossal screw-up on their own part that it was? That exact ploy has worked for them before.
FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products has always been a propaganda shop (they have certainly never been a real regulator). But previously their propaganda was lame pointless messages pitched at ignorant consumers (who do not even know CTP exists, let alone see their messaging), perhaps to provide memes for their useful idiots to publish (and, again, not actually be seen by anyone in their target audience). The current effort is different in terms of both volume and apparent purpose. You can see the volume by checking out the Twitter feeds of @FDATobacco and FDA Director @SGottliebFDA, and also see the content there and by following the links.
This is not the usual background noise of silly anti-tobacco propaganda. This is a clear example of a fixture in the U.S. political system: a concerted push by a government faction to sell their policy. (The most recent high-profile example of this was from the faction trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act.) The target audience for this includes lazy reporters, who will just transcribe the propaganda and get a free byline, and influential pseudo-experts (aka, useful idiots) who do not know enough to not believe everything they read. The general public, the apparent target of CTP’s previous propaganda, is at most an afterthought as an audience. But the most important audience for these propaganda efforts are others in government, or who have similar levels of policy-making influence, trying to persuade those on the fence and to bludgeon those who might oppose the policy.
For example, there was this from NCI (part of the National Institutes of Health, which along with FDA is part of HHS) that came out just after the Glantz propaganda dropped and as it was being touted by FDA and their surrogates.
The cabal at FDA will find it hard to run a full-on War on Nicotine if NCI actively opposes them. Similarly, there are presumably a lot of tobacco controllers further down in government, and in political organizations, who still embrace the old (correct) notion that nicotine — especially their nicotine — is not the problem. Most of them are just puppets, and will dutifully recite that we have always been at war with Eastasia …er, with nicotine, as soon at they get the message. Others can simply be silenced by the deluge from the agency that has more money than the rest of tobacco control combined. That is the playbook for this kind of inward-directed propaganda.
And so we have, for the first time, an actual War on Nicotine. Note that this does not mean the whole war can be relabeled The War on Nicotine for reasons noted above. This is just part of it. We are still stuck with “War on Tobacco (etc.)” for the larger effort unless someone can come up with something better.
Some commentators who focus only on e-cigarettes appear unaware of what is really happening. Gottlieb and FDA substantially delayed the implementation of the stealth ban on e-cigarettes and have made various noises about embracing e-cigarettes as a low-risk alternative to smoking. So, hey, everything looks good for e-cigarettes! Some of those commentators have even bought into the FDA propaganda that the FDA policies support harm reduction (at utterly Orwellian claim which I will address in my next post or you can check out my Twitter thread). However, since e-cigarettes are basically a nicotine delivery device, how can there be both a war on nicotine and a more pro-ecig policy?
One possible explanation is that FDA is signaling a plan to shift toward the position of British tobacco controllers who have seized control of the vaping mindspace there, intending to use e-cigarettes as just another weapon against smoking and smokers. That playbook involves keeping just enough of a boot on vaping to keep it from being accepted as a normal personal choice (it is only a smoking cessation medicine!), and staying in a position to squash it when supporting it becomes no longer politically expedient.
It could be that. But I find it genuinely hard to find that explanation in what we are seeing.
The two messages are simply too flatly contradictory. It is not exactly novel to see messaging from governments that includes policy proposals alongside stated support for goals that are antithetical to those policy proposals. Especially from this government and from this agency — after all, we heard basically the same happy talk about e-cigarettes even as FDA was marching toward a total ban as rapidly as they could. Obviously anyone other than lazy reporters and political actors who are looking for plausible deniability when they fall in with their faction’s bad policies should focus on the policy, not the contradictory happy talk.
But many do not. Thus this happy talk serves the rather obvious purpose of getting e-cigarette advocates — the most vocal and potentially politically effective opponents of a new War on Nicotine — to sit on their hands until the actual policy goal (whatever its crazy or corrupt motivation) has enough momentum. So we can expect no overt anti-ecig actions by FDA for a while. They still will not approve any new products (so there will be those temporarily grandfathered into minimal paperwork in 2016, and an a high-paperwork probably-denial grey-zone for later products, still leading to the full-ban in 2022) or allow any merchant claims about the low risk. They are just pausing, not retreating. They might withdrawal their proposed de facto ban of most smokeless tobacco, issued under the guise of being a health and safety regulation, though frankly that would probably only be because it will never survive judicial review (smokeless tobacco and harm reduction advocates are a much smaller voice than e-cigarette advocates).
But if they gain momentum for their War on Nicotine policy, things will probably go downhill quickly. Implementing a substantive policy (for the first time ever) will empower FDA to go ahead and fight the e-cigarette advocates they temporarily appeased. It seems impossible that a hugely impactful and crazy expensive policy of cigarette nicotine reduction, for the chiiiildren, will not spawn limits on e-cigarette nicotine density and “child friendly” flavors. With the delay of the full-on e-cigarette ban they no longer have the luxury of not even trying to actually regulate the products; FDA will be wanting to hurt vapers through other means.
If the proposed policy is quashed things are a bit harder to predict. Perhaps FDA will be shy to take on more fights. Perhaps there could be a real change of heart, but it would be the height of foolishness to read that into the same old rhetoric. Perhaps the political party that controls our government is really so deeply dedicated to consumer welfare and free choice, as some advocates seemed to think before the election, and they will clean house at CTP and change its direction (haha — kidding, of course — if that turns out to be the case, I vow to print this out and eat it).
But it seems most likely we would still see e-cigarette “regulation” that serves only as harassing partial bans as soon as they are no longer all-hands-on with their current policy. That is consistent with everything they have done so far. Moreover, it seems especially difficult for them to walk back on e-cigarettes after campaigning for a War on Nicotine for a year and convincing their useful idiots that we have always been at war with nicotine.