A handful of Democratic Senators are up in arms about the Golden Globe awards. No, they’re not upset that Breaking Bad beat out House of Cards for best Television Drama Series. Instead, they’re fuming about a few actors using electronic cigarettes during the award show broadcast. They’ve fired off a strongly worded letter to NBC Universal and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for “glamorizing” the use of e-cigarettes. And now they’re going even further in advocating for a ban on these products in the U.S. Capitol.
Banning consumption of electronic cigarettes in public has become a troubling trend of paternalistic lawmakers across the country. Such prohibitions have been passed in big cities like New York and Chicago, relatively small towns like Petaluma, California and Somerset, Massachusetts, and even a few states, like New Jersey and North Dakota.
These nanny-state bans, which typically forbid the use of e-cigarettes in public places and workplaces, have grown in popularity despite evidence that e-cigarettes can help reduce tobacco related illnesses and deaths by more than 98 percent, according to data from the R Street Institute. In fact, a researcher at Cancer Research UK recently said that e-cigarettes could save millions of lives. Even the editorial board at the Washington Post acknowledged that “e-cigarettes might be a useful tool to reduce harm rather than a gateway to a life of smoking.”
This promising development isn’t slowing down these Senators, including Richard Durbin (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and their push for a ban on e-cigarettes at the U.S. Capitol. Such a wrongheaded move would be based on little, if any scientific support. In fact, the Senators acknowledge the paucity of evidence in their letter and suggest the ban should be implemented as “an appropriate precautionary step.” This type of “we have to ban them to figure out what’s in them” mentality makes little sense – especially given the potential of e-cigarettes to improve public health.
Meanwhile some of these same busybody lawmakers are also employing pressure tactics on Walgreens, Rite Aid, and the trade association representing chain drug stores to emulate CVS by no longer selling tobacco products in their establishments. Though e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, the Senators have labeled them as “tobacco products” previously so it’s safe to assume that they would like to see e-cigarettes banned from television, government property, and drug stores.
What’s more, there’s another smell of hypocrisy in the air, as the lawmakers’ letter to the drug stores also recommends “increasing access to tobacco cessation devices.” If the Senators’ goal is harm reduction, they should promote, not discourage the use of e-cigarettes.
A study conducted in Italy showed that over half of smokers experienced a 50 percent reduction in the use of combustible cigarettes when e-cigarettes were offered as an alternative. This is highly encouraging news for public health advocates. For those concerned about the adverse health impact of e-cigarettes, the previously mentioned R Street study found e-cigarettes had the same trace amounts of carcinogens as other quitting aids already approved by the FDA (gum, patches, etc.) In reality, the risk posed by e-cigarettes appears to be on par with the smoking cessation devices these Senators are trumpeting.
It seems fairly clear that e-cigarettes offer smokers a much safer alternative to traditional cigarettes that can help them significantly reduce their smoking habit (which is why taxing them like combustible cigarettes is also a terrible idea). Yet Senators Durbin, Blumenthal, Brown, and a handful of their colleagues seem intent on stamping out e-cigarettes wherever they possibly can.
There may be a legitimate role for the government to play here – for instance, working with retailers to ensure that nicotine products aren’t sold to minors. But these Senators are going far beyond prudent rulemaking by leaning on television networks and private stores to do what they think is best – even if their demands aren’t supported by scientific evidence. If they legitimately are looking for ways to improve public health and reduce the use of conventional cigarettes, they should find the rapid growth of e-cigarettes encouraging. If they are merely grandstanding, we’d be better served if they’d simply butt out.