Anti-tobacco groups are blitzing Minnesota towns, trying to get them to enact “Tobacco 21” laws. These laws would raise the legal age for buying vapor products, cigarettes and other tobacco products from 18 to 21. To do this, these groups aim to abuse imperfections in the American system of governance.
Tobacco controllers are notorious for ignoring the collateral damage their tactics cause. They pursue their special interest politics with what can only be described as religious zeal that ignores all of humanity’s other concerns. They heap praise on horrific dictators like Duterte and Kim Jong-un for enacting strict anti-tobacco policies. If it is convenient to encourage scientific illiteracy to further the tobacco control agenda, they do so. They are not bothered by the fact that they ruin the reputation of real public health advocates and the agencies they are part of, thereby causing lasting harm to their colleagues and their valuable efforts.
More subtle is their use of inappropriate levers of government to impose their rules. If it is possible to pursue their goals through a particular channel, they will do it, regardless of what it does to the legitimacy of our government. At a time when the civility, restraint and basic trust needed for government to function seem to be breaking down, this is not inconsequential gamesmanship. It may be technically legal to use a particular political tactic, but that does not mean it will not damage our society. But tobacco controllers simply do not care.
The goal of tobacco controllers in Minnesota, according to Skip Murray, a local vaping activist, is to get enough town and county governments to pass their rules that the state government has little choice but to do the same. The state government will be encouraged to pass the rule because there appears to be widespread support. But it will also be pressured to do something to eliminate the hodgepodge of local laws, with spiteful merchants harmed by the bans lobbying to impose similar restrictions on their competitors across the state. The legislature’s choices will be to pass a preemption law that voids the local laws (which tends to be extremely unpopular) or to just give in and pass a version of the same law statewide. According to Murray, a Tobacco 21 bill was introduced at the state legislature in the last session but too late to even get a committee hearing before the session adjourned. The campaigners likely did this so they could tell local officials that there is interest at the state level.
The timing makes clear that they did not make an honest attempt to have the legislation considered at the appropriate level of government. Instead, the Tobacco 21 campaigners jumped straight into trying to influence local governments.
Local governments, in all but a few of the major cities, have no capacity to assess technically or morally complex policy issues. Local governments are the functional equivalent of a corporation’s accounting and facilities maintenance departments. This is not a criticism; those are tough jobs and need to be done well. The average person is more often affected by such decisions – road work, school funding, downtown revitalization, zoning rulings – than by major political decisions at the highest levels. But local governments have no business making scientific assessments or philosophical decisions.
[Note that this analysis is based not just on the facts of the present story, but the author’s personal experience with giving expert advice to local governments, dozens of times, on tobacco policy as well as other issues.]
Is it morally acceptable in our society for young adults, who are judged competent to join the military or take on debt, to be banned from making a particular purchase that is legal for older adults? What if doing so will provide health benefits to minors? But does it really have benefits, or are the lobbyists who are pushing the ban tricking the local officials about what the science says? The people who serve in local governments – accountants, local lawyers, real estate developers, community organizers – have no particular skills to make those assessments. They might learn the skills they need to run their town or county well, but those are very different skills.
As was previously reported, one Minnesota mayor vetoed a city council vote to enact Tobacco 21 legislation. He sensibly cited, among other concerns, that this was a matter that should be decided at the state level. But when such restraint is eroded by passage of rules like Tobacco 21, local officials start to believe it is reasonable for them to make technology and social policy. They then become vulnerable to other venal or crackpot lobbyists, or to the uninformed pet beliefs of individuals in the government. Town governments that decide they are able to assess the merits of Tobacco 21 start to (mistakenly) think they can assess the merits of banning particular chemicals in products or GMOs, or make sensible vaccination policies, or take rational action on climate change.
This is not to say that state governments, or even federal legislators, are the scientifically literate philosopher-kings we might want. But at least they have staffers who can do research and agencies they can order to do more. The quality of that work is often suspect, but there is a chance it will be informative. Local governments have no such resources. They are also not deliberative bodies. They typically meet briefly on a few evenings a month, approving dozens of little decisions in rapid succession so they can get home to sleep before reporting to their real jobs in the morning.
In addition, local governments suffer from what might be thought of as soft corruption. This is not self-enriching criminal corruption (though they are more vulnerable to that too, given the lack of serious oversight and the individuals’ personal local business interests and limited political ambitions), but rather desperation about being able to do their job. Few local governments have enough resources to meet basic needs, let alone pursue greater ambitions, so slick outsiders promising revenue are likely to get more attention than the interests of their own citizens. This is particularly relevant to cases of businesses wanting to site noxious facilities or to proposed tobacco taxes. But even in the present case, local officials with idealistic goals about health and welfare – which they have no way to pursue given limited resources – are easy marks for slick promises of miracle cures.
The specific tactics being used to push the Tobacco 21 agenda at the local level are even more disturbing (and will be covered in future articles). But the focus on those details should not distract from the fact that the mere act of pursuing local ordinances is an abuse of the American system of decentralized governance. Trying to enact tobacco policy at the level of local government is nothing short of a monorail-level con game.
This is the first article in a series on how “Tobacco 21” activists are abusing the American system of government.