By Jared Meyer
This century, The World Health Organization estimates that one billion people will die early from smoking cigarettes. Despite governments spending billions of dollars on tobacco control, and decades of programs designed to help smokers quit, the number of cigarette smokers worldwide continues to increase.
But there is hope. Vapor technology found in e-cigarettes offers smokers their best chance to quit by using products that are at least 95 percent safer than cigarettes. Vapor technology does not require burning tobacco, so it can deliver nicotine—the chemical that makes cigarettes addictive—without the tar or 40 other carcinogens found in cigarette smoke. When it comes to harm reduction, vaping is a clear positive step forward. As the saying goes, “ nicotine addicts, tar kills .”
Despite its health benefits, vaping faces strong opposition from the government and a variety of special interests. A Billion Lives, a new documentary that hits theaters worldwide on October 26th, is an in-depth response to Senator Ed Markey’s claim that “today’s electronic cigarettes are no better than the Joe Camels of the past.”
In what follows, the film’s director Aaron Biebert exposes the special interests that will stop at nothing to ban the best hope for smokers who want to quit their deadly habit.
Jared Meyer: Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration finalized rules that it estimates will destroy 99 percent of the U.S. vapor industry. But this was not the first time that the FDA tried to effectively outlaw the industry. Can you explain how the FDA previously tried to keep smokers from switching to vaping?
Aaron Biebert: Back in 2009, the FDA began seizing shipments of vapor devices. A judge determined that doing so was illegal, but severe damage was already done. Many of the industry’s early pioneers were forced out of business.
Undeterred, the FDA started funding research to show that vapor technology was dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also poured funding into public health groups such as the American Lung Association to lobby for new anti-vapor laws at the state level.
JM: It is clear that vapor technology’s increasing popularity threatens the profits of large tobacco companies. But your film shows how other special interests stand to gain by pushing bogus research that exaggerates the risks of vaping. Who are these special interests?
AB: Large pharmaceutical companies are the biggest funders of the war against vapor technology . After all, they earn billions of dollars by producing nicotine gum, patches, and sprays, along with other smoking cessation drugs such as Chantix and Wellbutrin. These profits are at risk as vaping increases in popularity as an alternative to smoking. Since smoking is a leading cause of cancer and other diseases like COPD, emphysema, asthma, erectile dysfunction, and heart disease, there are also billions of dollars at stake with sales of their cancer drugs, chemotherapy, and other prescription medications.
Simply put, smoking is a lifeline for Big Pharma’s profits .
Additionally, because of high tax rates and annual payments from tobacco companies based on sales, governments get a large share of cigarette profits. Since all this money provides funding for the pet projects of many politicians, it is easy to convince them to go along with bans, unreasonable restrictions, and damaging taxes on alternatives to cigarettes. Big Pharma even got a lobbyist for GSK (which markets Nicorette in the United States) to become head of the FDA division that is now de-facto banning 99% of vapor technology products.
JM: What role does the pharmaceutical industry play in nonprofit health organizations’ opposition to vapor technology? Everyone from the World Lung Foundation to the American Cancer Society has condemned vaping as a dangerous choice that must be banned.
AB: Tobacco control has gone from a grassroots movement for smoke-free offices to a multi-billion dollar industry that takes hundreds of millions of dollars from big pharmaceutical industries. The American Cancer Society even did an endorsement deal with Nicorette. The World Health Organization, a division of the United Nations, is getting funding directly from the pharmaceutical giants, and then protecting their products.
Plus, the American Cancer Society, the American Lung Association, and their worldwide affiliates will likely experience severe cutbacks in funding if smoking and cancer rates drop significantly. This is what happened in Sweden after wide adoption of snus, a smoke-free tobacco alternative. Since these charities get over a billion dollars a year in donations, grants, and pharmaceutical sponsorships, we are talking about a big loss in revenue.
JM: A Billion Lives covers much more than the dangerous alliance between pharmaceutical companies, government health regulators, and public health nonprofits, but this is the most important story the documentary tells. These are the very groups that should welcome harm-reduction alternatives that could save hundreds of millions of lives, making their war on vapor technology even more troubling. Perhaps their opposition is driven by a realization that the market delivered what government and nonprofits could not—an attractive, safer alternative to smoking.
Jared Meyer is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.