Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that from 2005 to 2010, the nation's smoking rate experienced a measly decline, from 20.9 percent to 19.3 percent. This, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in government anti-smoking campaigns and higher cigarette taxes. The CDC now estimates that the smoking rate will be 17 percent in 2020, far short of the sub–12 percent goal set by the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act.
If there's any chance of reaching the goal, influential anti-tobacco activist groups should quit stubbornly relying on the government to solve the problem, especially when the private sector is coming up with innovative approaches to reduce the risks related to tobacco use.
The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, perhaps the most prominent anti-tobacco group, wrote in a press release that the decline in smoking rates was "nothing to cheer" about and that the news "underscores the need for elected officials at all levels to more aggressively implement proven measures to reduce tobacco use." Except by their own admission, the only thing proven about the current government approach is that it isn't working.
In fact, groups like Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids have remained steadfast in their adamant opposition to many commonsense strategies for making tobacco less deadly. The most egregious example is their continued prohibitionist stance towards electronic cigarettes. E-cigarettes, which deliver nicotine to the user in a water-like vapor that does not contain the deadly amalgamation of particles found in tobacco smoke, have caught on over the last half-decade with smokers looking for less risky ways to get nicotine, or even trying to quit entirely. Published surveys suggest that e-cigarettes have helped a significant number of people remain abstinent from traditional cigarettes. Furthermore, despite fear-mongering by activist groups, tests performed on e-cigarette liquid and vapor demonstrate that the product is no more toxic than other nicotine-replacement therapy products such as the nicotine patch, gum, and inhaler.
Apparently, the city of Boston hasn't gotten the memo. Earlier this month, the Boston Public Health Commission took the first step toward banning the use of e-cigarettes in workplaces, restaurant patios and decks, and loading docks. If passed by the Health Commission, Boston will join a small but growing list of communities — one of the most significant being King County, Wash., (which includes the city of Seattle) — that have voted to force e-cigarette users, many of whom are ex-smokers, back into the smoking section based on nothing but pure hype and conjecture. There is no evidence whatsoever that e-cigarette vapors contain anything more harmful than small amounts of nicotine, which is not a carcinogen.
Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples of local governments' interfering with effective private-sector solutions. In fact, these campaigns have been bankrolled by the CDC, the very same federal bureaucracy that's spending recklessly — and ineffectively — to fight smoking.
When Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it created a CDC slush fund called "Communities Putting Prevention to Work". Initially created as part of the 2009 stimulus package to distribute $400 million in grants to state departments of health and local governments, the CPPW program, like most big spending programs, refused to die. Its funding now stands at $750 million a year, and will rise to $2 billion a year beginning in 2015. The cash handouts are supposed to be targeted at "reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality associated with obesity and tobacco use . . . through implementing evidence- and practice-based approaches."
What is the "evidence" supporting a CDC-funded campaign to restrict the use of e-cigarettes? The Boston Public Health Commission declined to share with us a report issued by their CPPW advisory council to Mayor Thomas Menino on the topic. And the CDC dismissed any notion of accountability and transparency by referring our questions back to the (non-responsive) grant recipient.
Whether achieved by national or local policy change, governmental micromanagement of health behaviors not only restricts freedom, but is failed policy. Boston's proposed law is undoubtedly a waste of money and resources. But by creating obstacles for smokers to switch to e-cigarettes, it will actually do far more harm than good.
Most important, it again illustrates what the few rational voices in the tobacco-control movement have been saying for years: The so-called public-health community simply strives for more control over our lives, even at the expense of shortening them.
Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Gregory Conley handles legislative advocacy for the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-Free Alternatives Association and is a JD / MBA candidate at Rutgers University.