weds two otherwise divorced philosophies. One teaches that people deserve the liberty
to make their own choices. Another teaches elites, like parents
, should control people’s decisions when it is in their best interest. The idea is explored at length in the book "Nudge
": don’t tell people what to do, just nudge them.
One area where this has been very effective has been tobacco consumption. Cigarettes are widely accessible, but we’ve been nudging people away from them so well that smoking in the U.S. has hit at an all-time low. Given this, many of us assumed libertarian paternalism would become the standard.
But then, enter the vaping debate.
A chorus of voices is crying for outright bans on smoking e-cigarettes, also called vaping. Gov. Cuomo issued a very high-profile executive order to ban all flavored e-cigarettes (except menthol) the same week President Trump made a similar call. Tracking the intricacies of vaping laws state by state is so complicated there’s a Wikipedia page dedicated to it.
Top-down government bans are troubling. They infringe on personal freedom, create potential Prohibition-era black markets, incentivize the behavior as an act of rebellion, and open the door to authoritarianism. The increasingly tyrannical — pardon, progressive — San Francisco has taken a “scorched earth approach” with their vaping ban, on top of their bans on bottled water, soda, and facial recognition technology. (Don’t worry: public defecation and heroin use are perfectly acceptable.)
Direct government action like this is especially wrong when it’s crony capitalism cloaked under a mantle of righteousness.
Having recently formed a strategic partnership worth $38 billion, Juul and Altria have mounted an offensive to ensure that menthol-flavored e-cigarettes remain conveniently unbanned, as is the case for New York’s otherwise strict ban. An FDA ban on all flavors except menthol is actually in their best interest, as Juul is the overwhelming market leader in that flavor and would suffer less under such a ban than their competitors. Indeed, if e-smokers are left without their own favorite flavor, they might be nudged to switch to menthol.
Flush with cash, they hired seven different lobbying firms last year and spent $1 million on lobbyists in spring of this year alone! Juul needs all the help it can get, given the criminal probe announced this week by the FBI, but their main goal seems to be a less-comprehensive ban that allows mint and menthol to stay on the market, as an alternative for smokers of menthol cigarettes
Smaller tobacconists can’t remotely afford this kind of intervention, and will be wiped out by it. Indeed, as The Washington Post reported this week, “Mom-and-pop vape shops are the fastest-growing retail segment of the past decade, as well as the one with the highest share of employees at small businesses.”
Altria and Juul are leveraging their clout as market leaders to win a government-sponsored monopoly. It’s like Jafar says in "Aladdin": “You've heard of the golden rule, haven't you? Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”
And while yes, vaping is certainly less healthy than not vaping — even without the explosions — the vaping trend has made the country healthier, as it has helped ween people off traditional cigarettes. Banning flavored e-cigarette products could nudge former smokers back to tobacco, as a National Bureau of Economic Research study concluded.
A flavor ban could also lead to less safe counterfeit products, which has already started to play out with many more illnesses and possibly deaths resulting from these shady alternatives.
This isn’t to say that the government should never take any action at all. Stricter bans are appropriate the less capable a population is of making its own decisions: paternalism makes sense when people still need parents. This is why we have age of consent laws (again, dedicated Wikipedia page on the subject). But let’s remember that while the move to ban vaping is always couched in “think of the children!” language, selling e-cigarettes to minors is already illegal.
In that case, like with much of the gun debate, what we need is better enforcement rather than more laws.
This entire conversation is particularly ironic at a time when many on both right and left are calling for decriminalization of marijuana. In both cases, we don’t have enough genuine scientific knowledge to understand the broader implications of opening the door to one while shutting the door to the other. On the woke left, this urgency to ban or legalize is born from a pathology to be on the right side of history — rather than waiting to learn from it.
Alas if the Trump Administration joins with them on the vaping issue, especially if it results in crony capitalism. Let’s hope we can nudge them in the right direction.
Jared Whitley is a long-time politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House, and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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