All people like better products. Teenagers are people. Therefore….

by Carl V Phillips

So today FDA Commissioner Gottlieb is pumping cigarette company stock prices by threatening to ban flavors in vapor products (or something — not entirely clear), unless the manufacturers magically get teenagers to switch back to smoking instead (or something — not entirely clear). I wanted to address one aspect of this rhetorical game that does not get talked about enough. I doubt there is any serious observer of this space who does not get this, but much of what is said seems to overlook it rather than drilling down to it as it should.

The prohibitionist’s simplest rhetorical game here is to confuse “this product feature is appealing to teenagers” with “this product feature is particularly or uniquely appealing to teenagers.” But there is a deeper game, trying to cement the premise that intentionally lowering product quality is a good thing. This applies not just to interesting flavors of e-liquid, but also everything from attractive packaging to convenient unit quantities. The standard response to the “teenagers like flavors” rhetoric is to counter that adults like them too, and thus they seem to be critical for smoking cessation. Both systematic data and a deluge of testimonials make this point. It is a great point, and those making it are doing a great job.

However, the prohibitionists at FDA and elsewhere are obviously not unaware that adults also like and buy interesting flavors. Similarly, adults and teenagers both like it that e-cigarettes are less than five kilograms and come in colors other than day-glo orange. They like it that they are affordable, that cartridges last for a while, and that the devices do not burn your lips. They like it that there is no regulation that says tobacco products must be smeared with feces before they are packaged. All of these are aspects of product quality. The same features that make a product appealing to people (and thus, the banning of which would make them less appealing to people) make it appealing to teenagers. It turns out that teenagers are very similar to people, and many would argue that they are people. Lower the quality of the product, and fewer teenagers will choose to consume it. Fewer adults too. This works for food, movies, and pens also. There is no magic here.

The magic exists entirely in the rhetoric, in which the prohibitionists trick people into endorsing (or at least not actively pushing back against) their underlying premise: Intentionally lowering product quality is a good thing because it discourages teenage use. Never mind that intentionally lowering people’s welfare is a phenomenally radical action for a government to take, one that ought to be based on a lot of open and honest analysis, not sneaky rhetoric. I find it is a useful clarifying thought to replace whatever quality-lowering regulation is being debated with “mandatory smearing with feces” (assume the feces are sterilized so they are not a health hazard): If it is okay to intentionally lower the product quality by doing X (flavor bans, “plain packs”, punitive taxes, etc.), then it must be okay to mandate feces smears.

Consider the usual scientific response to flavor ban proposals, that there is no evidence that particular flavors or categories are particularly appealing to teenagers. This is accurate; there is no such evidence and no reason to believe it is true. If someone wanted to lower vapor product quality in a way that particularly affected teenagers, perhaps the orange coloration or increased mass options would be the better bet. After all, isn’t the usual claim that teenagers are taking advantage of the products being so subtle that they can hide them from parents and teachers? Adults would not like ugly heavy products, but they could deal with them.

The thing is that FDA et al. are not actually claiming that the flavors are particularly appealing to teenagers, just that they are appealing. This is obviously true (see above observation that teenagers are very much like people). A casual reader might conclude they are claiming that this is a targeted lowering of quality that affects teenagers but not adults. In fact, the serious actors in the space seldom actually claim that, and when they do it seems usually to be a matter of sloppy word choice. They do not actually consider it a problem that a regulation lowers the appeal of a product for everyone (and thus hurts all consumers). To them, this is a feature, not a bug. They want to ruin the products for everyone.

In getting opponents to go along with their fiction that this is not their motive, they win their greatest victory. One of the important skills of a conman like Scott Gottlieb is to get people to adopt his hidden premises without him ever stating them, let alone defending them. When the arguments hinge on “but adults like flavors just as much as teenagers do”, they effectively concede a key prohibitionist premise: If there were a way to intentionally lower product quality, such that it hurt teenage consumers more than adult consumers, then doing it would be fine. Not just fine, but good or even clearly the right thing to do. No doubt there are some vape advocates who accept that, but presumably most are not ready to agree that their e-cigarettes should have to look like traffic cones. But by just fighting the empirical claim (which is not actually even being claimed), they are often implicitly endorsing the normative premise.

Some advocates lead with the message that there are already laws about teenage access and these just need to be enforced. This is good in that it does not endorse the premise that it goes without saying that harming adults for the good of the chiiiildren is  justified (though usually this is not explicitly stated). The problem is that Gottlieb has cleverly turned this on its head, and threatens to hurt adults if they do not somehow better enforce the government’s laws, magically figuring out how to do what the government has never been able to do with cigarettes. Today’s rhetoric was mostly threatening the industry (though it is consumers who would suffer, of course), but he has directed that same demand at vapers themselves. Those who have been tricked into endorsing the underlying premises are cornered by this. They have effectively already conceded that destroying product quality is acceptable if minor bans cannot be enforced.

Advocates need to do a better job of backing a few steps up the prohibitionists’ chain of reasoning, rather than being tricked into conceding so much ground. Every argument should begin with the observation, “this policy is about intentionally harming people (vapers, smokers, other product users).” This should always be pointed out, because in itself that is a radical use of government power that should not pass without comment. It should be followed with a demand for an answer to, “by what right do you harm me/adult consumers/your citizens, even if it is true that this harms others more and harming them is a good thing because it changes their behavior?” Only after making those observations, and trying to never let the audience forget them, is it time to add “discouraging teenage vaping probably encourages teenage smoking”, “there the evidence does not support your implicit claim that teenagers like flavors better than adults do”, and other arguments about the scientific facts.

13 responses to “All people like better products. Teenagers are people. Therefore….

  1. Surely prohibitionists would feel they never have to answer the question “by what right do you harm me/adult consumers/your citizens, even if it is true that this harms others more and harming them is a good thing?” because doing it for the ‘chiiildren’ shuts down discussion. Their assumption is that the welfare of children trumps any other consideration. It’s an assumption which has great persuasive power.
    I may have completely misunderstood something here, because I’m also unsure what is meant, in this context, by “…and harming them is a good thing”. I’m not picking holes for the sake of it. Just genuinely a bit baffled. I know great and detailed thought has gone into this, as it has with all your impressive and greatly valued blog posts.

    • Re the latter point: Just like lowering quality is meant to harm adults, it is meant to harm kids. That is, it intentionally lowers their welfare from their preferred choice (vaping). The goal is to make their otherwise dispreferred choice (not vaping) their best available choice. The idea is that this is somehow better for their health (far from clear) and their long-run welfare (even further from clear), and thus it is somehow helping them. But at its essence, it is intentionally harming them in order to further some externally-chosen behavioral goal, not unlike hitting them to try to modify their behavior.

      As for answering the question: First, such questions are most often asked with no one around to answer them, which is fine. The most important reason to pose the question (out loud, to whatever audience is listening) is to remind people — or even making them realize for the first time — that it is a nontrivial question. The audience in such cases is seldom the people who could, in theory, respond to the question. But if they are there to answer, or not, even better. If they do not answer, it illustrates to the real audience that they have no answer for it.

      If they do answer, better still. Perhaps they tell the truth and say “I actually want to hurt you also” (not in so many words). Great — make them say it. Perhaps they shade the truth and say “gee, I really hate to hurt you too, but anything for the children is for the greater good.” This offers a chance to respond (unlike quietly accepting their premise!). E.g., “so you are saying we should ban driving near schools and play parks, ban alcoholic beverages completely, etc.?” Put them on the defensive where they should be, to have to justify what they are doing to you. Or perhaps they try to argue that it does not, in fact, hurt you because you are and adult and don’t like sweet flavors. If they do that, *then* you have an opening to respond with the science on that point. But it only would happen because the question was asked and answered.

      Of course, they will not answer, so the previous paragraph is moot. Instead focus on the rhetorical value, re the real target audience, of posing the question and not getting an answer to it. And, even more important, the value of reminding your own side to not concede 90% of what the prohibitionists want people to accept without debate.

      • Note: I did a little edit to that sentence about “harming them” to try to clarify the point from my first paragraph in the comment.

  2. Hi Carl.

    On one side I understand actions of FDA and on the other side I understand vaping community/industry. But here are a few questions which must be answered:

    1. If Juul (and similar) e-cigarette is addictive and can lead to a lifelong addiction to nicotine, how confident are we that e-cigarettes are really safer than smoking cigarettes on the long run?

    2. How confident are we that this addiction won’t cause life threatening diseases later in life?

    3. We have 15 years of experiences with e-cigarettes but is that really enough to have confidence about relative safety of e-cigarettes?

    If we decide to do nothing about teens vaping and later we find out that vaping is detrimendous to theirs health that will be very irresponsible from federal agency as FDA.

    Don’t you agree?

    • Well, as an overview, it is useful to recall the “Yes, Minister” (1988) passage about “politicians’ logic”: Something must be done; this is something; therefore we must do it. Even if there is a valid concern, it obviously does not mean that any old policy that someone asserts is a solution is a good idea.

      As for your specific questions:

      1. Tobacco products are not addictive by any accepted definition of the term. See any of about 1000 things I have written about that. Substituting “lifelong habit” for what you wrote, however, the answer is: We have no particular reason to believe that teenage vaping will often lead to lifetime use. If it does, it is unlikely to be a big deal. We are as confident vaping is safer than smoking as we are that using an iPhone is safer than smoking, for roughly the same reasons.

      2. Again, not an addiction. Won’t cause any, ever, in anyone? Not at all. In fact we can be sure that *any* common practice (using an iPhone, eating broccoli) *will* cause at least one case. But we are quite sure the risk is very low.

      3. Same can be said about the iPhone. I have a piece here from a few years ago about what we would know about smoking if it were only a few years old, and a more recent similar one at The Daily Vaper. These explain why we would be sure smoking is high-risk, even if it were new (and similarly how we know vaping is low-risk).

      4. Again, iPhone. Might be deadly in the long run. Shouldn’t we do something to stop it now?

  3. First, as always, credit to Carl for expressing my own views in this sphere more elegantly than I know how to express them.

    Second, if there is a move made to ban flavored vape liquid, I utterly disavow in advance the actions of my 44 year old wife and 20 year old daughter.

    • 1. Thanks.
      2. That may be a bit too subtle. I am thinking “Duncan Hunter reference re your intention to homebrew e-liquid” but I am not entirely sure.

      • The wife doesn’t really pay attention to vape politics, so when I told her about this, I wish I could adequately relate what her facial expression looked like. But alas, I am a polemicist and not a poet.

        Then, as she often does, she asked the question any rational person would (or should) ask: “So it’s a public health crisis that kids don’t smoke cigarettes anymore?”

  4. Pingback: Vaping In The News – September 15th, 2018 | Vaping Links And More

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  6. Gottlieb’s statement at
    falsely claimed youth e-cigarette use is an epidemic (even though vaping isn’t a disease, and despite CDC and NIDA teen e-cig use and vaping survey data showing declines in recent years) and falsely claimed JUUL, Vuse, MarkTen, blu e cigs, and Logic account for >97% of US e-cig market (they comprise <50%).

    Gottlieb's FDA is also launching another anti teen vaping campaign (and has urged vapor manufacturers to do the same), which will likely encourage more naturally rebellious teens to try vaping (just as occurred after CDC's Frieden funded and collaborated with dozens of the nation's largest municipal health agencies to ban vaping in workplaces in 2013/2014, which generated lots of news stories showing young adults vaping and lots of anti vaping propaganda programs in middle and high schools).

    And of course, the news media repeated Gottlieb's false claims as factual without any fact checking.

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