• April 3, 2020

Figuring the ‘epidemic’

In a piece published at reason.com, Jacob Sullum makes the point that it is impossible for the public to evaluate the ‘epidemic’ of vaping among young people in the US because the relevant figures have not been made available.

Sullum, who is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a nationally syndicated columnist, said that when the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Scott Gottlieb, threatened last month to crack down on vaping products in response to ‘an epidemic of e-cigarette use among teenagers,’ he alluded to ‘preliminary data’ showing that ‘youth use of e-cigs is rising very sharply’.

‘Although we still have not seen those numbers, that has not stopped Gottlieb from making policy decisions based on them, including changes that could limit the appeal and availability of products he concedes have enormous potential to reduce the harm caused by smoking,’ Sullum said.

Later in his piece, Sullum said that it was hard to be sanguine about Gottlieb’s use of this secret information after watching a CNBC interview, which he describes in his piece. In that interview, Gottlieb had talked about banning online sales of e-cigarettes, for example, even though online vendors such as Juul used age verification systems and the vast majority of illegal sales to minors occurred in brick-and-mortar stores, as Gottlieb conceded.

“We recognize [e-cigarettes] as a viable alternative for adult smokers who want to get access to satisfying levels of nicotine without all the harmful effects of combustion,” Gottlieb was quoted as saying. “If we could switch every adult smoker to an e-cigarette, it would have a profound public health impact.”

Yet, Sullum said, Gottlieb was ready to discourage that switch by making e-cigarettes less appealing (by restricting flavors, for example) and harder to get (by banning sales outside of adults-only vape shops, another idea he floated), all based on an ‘epidemic’ that was impossible to evaluate without the data he was not letting most people see.