In 2008, incoming Chief of Staff to President-elect Obama and current Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel famously told a Wall Street Journal conference of corporate executives that we should “never let a serious crisis go waste.” While Emanuel’s words got a great deal of attention, he was only saying aloud what politicians have been practicing forever. When it comes to e-cigarettes and vapor products, Senate Democrats aren’t simply trying to take advantage of a crisis, they’re manufacturing one that isn’t there.
In the last two weeks, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and his chief deputy Dick Durbin (D-IL) have both come out with attacks on e-cigarettes and vapor products. Last Sunday, Schumer called on FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb to move forward with FDA regulations likely to ban as many as three million vapor products and shutter tens of thousands of American small businesses.
Durbin and his Democratic colleagues Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jack Reed (D-RI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) last week reintroduced a bill that would create a new federal tax on vapor products and tax them the same as tobacco cigarettes. If approved, Schumer and Durbin’s proposals will likely lead many vapers back to smoking (and dying).
As they often do, both Schumer and Durbin claimed their actions are necessary to protect children. In this case, however, Schumer and Durbin aren’t just trying to use a crisis justify product bans and new taxes, they are creating a crisis that doesn’t exist.
Sadly, Schumer and Durbin rely upon a shoddy report on e-cigarettes from former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The recently discredited Surgeon General’s report was and continues to be repeated ad nauseam by the mainstream press and relied upon by proponents of a big government nanny state to justify more regulations and more taxes. Put simply, there is no youth e-cigarette crisis. The data from the last several years demonstrates that the rise of vapor products correlates with significant drops in teen smoking. The reality is that vapor products are very likely mitigating harm caused by smoking.
A 2017 critique of General Murthy’s report from leading nicotine scientists recently published in Harm Reduction Journal reveals that Murthy twisted the numbers and failed to openly acknowledge that data from multi-year U.S. government funded surveys he cited (National Youth Tobacco Survey and the Monitoring the Future Study) demonstrate a very different outcome when objectively considered in the same way the government evaluates the data related to smoking. The researchers, looking at the same data available to Murthy, determined that “e-cigarette use among U.S. youth is either infrequent or experimental, and negligible among never-smoking youth.”
Murthy also failed to distinguish toxicant levels in cigarette smoke from the risks of nicotine independent of cigarette smoke. It’s almost as if Murthy – and Schumer and Durbin – fail to understand that vapor products don’t contain tobacco, don’t burn anything and don’t produce toxic smoke. They also clearly don’t recognize what scientists and researchers accepted decades ago – that it’s not nicotine, but toxicants in tobacco smoke that kill smokers.
Schumer and Durbin rationalize draconian bans and new taxes as a response to an epidemic of kids using e-cigarettes that doesn’t exist. It’s their own fault, of course, but it’s also the fault of the former U.S. Surgeon General who issued a shoddy report on youth and e-cigarettes. Instead of objectively evaluating the data, Murthy twisted it for his own ideological ends. A closer, more objective look at the 2014 Monitoring the Future survey reveals that regular use of vapor products among youth is quite rare among non-smoking youth – only 1.7 percent used e-cigarettes for more than 5 days per month and only 0.7 percent were regular users (20-30 days in the past month). Data from the 2014 National Youth Tobacco Survey revealed that only 0.6 percent of middle school students and 2.5 percent of high school students were “frequent users” as defined by these government surveys. Murthy also failed to acknowledge that increased experimentation with vapor products as the Journal paper emphasizes “has coincided with the sharpest declines in youth smoking rates in decades.” In addition to skewing the numbers from reputable government surveys, Murthy likewise failed to acknowledge that surveys indicate that most youth using these products were already smoking and most didn’t use nicotine.
The actions proposed by Schumer and Durbin are unjustified by the facts and likely to cause, rather than mitigate harm. If enacted, more people will smoke and more will die. Senate Democrats aren’t protecting kids, they’re using them.
Brian Fojtik is a Senior Fellow with Reason Foundation.