Though they (probably) aren’t car surfing or eating Tide pods, lawmakers and government bureaucrats are as susceptible to passing fads as bored teenagers. For government folks, efforts to prevent death and disease from smoking is so last century. Cigarettes are “out,” e-cigarettes are “in.” And with the media now in a constant feeding-frenzy over youth vaping, introducing legislation to rein in the e-cigarette industry is all the rage with lawmakers. The latest to board the bandwagon is Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), who just last month proposed a measure that would functionally eliminate the vapor industry, killing thousands of small businesses and robbing adults of a life-saving tobacco alternative. Romney is promoting his bill as a way to protect children from nicotine addiction. But, what it really protects is something in which Romney has a personal, political, and financial interest: cigarette sales.
A ceaseless stream of headlines over the last two years has successfully whipped the public into a panic over e-cigarettes. The products have been blamed for: lung injuries we now know were caused by tainted, black market marijuana; an “epidemic” of youth vaping, though only about half a percent of never-smokers habitually vape; and erasing all the progress made on youth tobacco use, even as teen smoking hit an historic low of 3.7 percent just this year. All this negative press has made e-cigarettes an easy target for politicians who want to attract media attention and appear like they’re doing “something.”
As of December 2019, eighteen states have raised the minimum age limit for tobacco sales—including e-cigarette sales—to 21. A number of states and cities have banned or are in the process of banning sales of e-cigarettes flavors (except tobacco). San Francisco banned the sale of all e-cigarettes (though traditional cigarettes remain on shelves). And, there have been no fewer than 21 proposals to restrict sales, marketing, and/or packaging of e-cigarettes introduced in Congress this year alone.
Romney’s bill, Ending New Nicotine Dependencies Act (ENND Act), would ban:
All e-cigarette flavors except tobacco (though it is also a flavor)
All refillable components or parts
Any e-cigarettes that look like cigarettes, pens, USBs, or other “common nonmedical devices”
Additionally, it would apply the federal cigarette excise tax to e-cigarettes, give the Department of Health and Human Services $115 million extra for an anti-vaping awareness campaign, and—even though the bill bans e-liquids used in refillable or “open” vapor systems—the bill would institute a new e-liquid tax.
If enacted, Romney’s bill wouldn’t reduce adolescents’ attraction to e-cigarettes, however. As I’ve documented before, the type of device, its shape, nicotine content, and flavors having little to do with youth vaping rates. Curiosity is the main driving factor. Without a doubt, it was the well-funded anti-vaping campaigns already underway at FDA and CDC and the constant message telling teens that “everyone is doing it” that reignited youth curiosity in vaping over the last two years. It explains why youth vaping of both nicotine and THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) have increased over the last year, but marijuana use did not increase. Giving these agencies more money to unintentionally advertise vaping to teens will only make it more attractive.
Furthermore, banning non-tobacco flavors won’t stop kids from using tobacco as we saw back in the mid-1990s when nearly 40 percent of teenagers smoked. They weren’t smoking fruit, candy, or dessert-flavored cigarettes because those weren’t introduced onto the U.S. market until 1999, when youth smoking began declining.
Adolescents generally do not use open-system e-cigarettes—the type of devices banned by this bill. At least according to news headlines, teens prefer Juul which is a “pod mod” or closed system. While Juul in its current form would be banned under Romney’s proposal for looking like a USB device, other similar devices and Juul—if it redesigned its product—would remain.
On the other hand, Romney’s plan eliminates the types of devices used primarily by adults as a low-risk substitute for cigarettes, which still kill hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. It bans the flavors they rely on to stay smoke-free and would put the more than 10,000 small vapor shops that not only employ many people, but also function as a support network for ex-smokers.
Without these shops, devices, and the flavors that make e-cigarettes twice as effective as other smoking cessation products, many ex-smokers who switched to vaping will return to smoking. Others will turn to the black market to find their preferred products. Teens will also turn to the black market since no drug dealers check for ID. And in all of these groups, many people will suffer and die as a result, whether from smoking-related illness or from using products laced with illicit drugs or tainted with dangerous ingredients. The only beneficiaries of all this death and misery are cigarette companies that have experienced plummeting sales thanks to e-cigarettes, and those who rely on the tax revenue from cigarette sales.
It’s no secret that most state budgets are propped up by the tax revenue collected from cigarette sales. For example, cigarette taxes payed for “RomneyCare” in his former home state of Massachusetts. But, taxes aren’t the only reason states have for wanting to protect cigarette sales. Forty-six of them also receive annual payments from tobacco companies, a product of the Master Settlement Agreement they signed in 1998. And the amount of those payments is tied to the amount of sales made by the tobacco companies.
A few states didn’t want to wait to spend the money from these annual payments, instead issuing bonds backed by the money they expected to receive based on the number of cigarettes they expected would be sold. What they didn’t foresee was the invention of e-cigarettes and how effectively this new alternative would reduce smoking and, as a result, cigarette sales. Now, with most of these bonds nearing repayment, the states face a tough choice: default on their obligation or find the money. Industry analysts believe the states won’t want the stigma of defaulting and will pay, acquiring the money through a combination of tax increases and by selling even more tobacco bonds (doubling down on the MSA payments.)
The government’s dependence on tobacco revenue warrants viewing any proposal that would protect cigarette sales with suspicion. But, Romney’s bill should be greeted with even more skepticism given his personal relationship to the tobacco industry.
Prior to entering “public service,” Romney made a name for himself in the business world with the management consulting firm Bain & Co. It was there that Romney established ties with Big Tobacco, saving Bain from bankruptcy and helping tobacco giants like Philip Morris and British American Tobacco increase sales in the U.S. and take over the cigarette market in Russia. And since leaving Bain & Co., Romney has continued to profit off the cigarette business. In 2012, for example, the year he ran for President of the U.S., Romney receive more money from tobacco companies than any other member of Congress. Even today, Romney is among the top recipients of donations from Altria (the parent company of Philip Morris).
It is possible that Romney’s relationship with Big Tobacco isn’t behind his attempt to ban their biggest competitor. Perhaps he genuinely believes that making e-cigarettes illegal will stop adolescents from using nicotine. In other words, Romney’s bill may not be intentionally self-interested, but it is appallingly misguided.
Teenagers will not whole-sale stop trying drugs, drinking alcohol, or having pre-marital sex. They won’t stop experimenting with nicotine either, because that’s what teenagers do: they experiment, rebel, and take risks. If enacted, all Romney’s bill will guarantee is that when teenagers use nicotine, the risk to their health will be far greater than the risks posed by legally available e-cigarettes. Furthermore, by depriving adults of access to these life-saving products, it condemns the millions who have already quit smoking using e-cigarettes and the billions who might have done so in the future to either the perils of the black market or an almost certain death from cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are the first real opportunity we’ve been given to bring America close to a smoke-free society. We’re almost there now, thanks in no small part to their ability to help smokers quit and divert new smokers to a safer alternative. But, as the result of greed, vanity, or hubris, Romney would kill that opportunity, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. His proposal—and all like it—should be rejected, not for the motivation behind them, but for the unmitigated disaster they would end up causing.