What E-Cigarettes Can Teach Us About Fake News

By Libby Coleman

(OZY.com)

“Fake news” is a two-word combination that’s been more popular in 2016 and 2017 than “Beyoncé’s baby.” The criticisms of duplicity swing both ways, right and left. President Trump leveled the critique at CNN in his early days in office. Then again, former national security adviser Michael Flynn was accused of populating his feeds with alternative facts. And nonpartisan companies like Google and Facebook are planning to call fake news when they see it on their sites to dispel confusion.

The latest topic in the fake-news whirlwind is a surprising one: e-cigarettes, with both libertarians and staunch conservatives weighing in. In February, the Washington Examiner, a conservative-leaning source, blasted the headline: “Why fake news plagues the e-cigarette debate.” According to the article, the cause for concern was twofold — studies that claim e-cigarettes are harmful, and journalists who bait readers with preposterous headlines that vilify e-cigarettes. An article by a commentator on the conservative website The Rebel ran below the headline “#FakeNews: One CNN tweet spreads two lies about vaping to millions.” At a SXSW panel in March titled “A New Leaf: Vaping, E-Cigs & the Future of Tobacco,” the four panelists from places like the American Enterprise Institute and TechFreedom spoke out about the fake news that shrouds e-cigarettes. “If anyone denies the basic signs of this issue, I guess you could think of it as fake news,” Evan Swarztrauber at TechFreedom says. “Things like alternative facts, false information.”

What basic signs? Proponents say e-cigarettes are far healthier than regular cigarettes, in line with Nicorette levels of danger, and that the industry is overly regulated. Critics like Stanton Glantz, a medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, have reportedly said that e-cigarettes may disperse vapor that could be dangerous to the heart.

When the smoke clears, the hero of the day may be Trump, another fan of calling fake news when he sees it. The argument that fake news drives e-cigarettes research goes back to at least 2015 and has increased its presence since the last election cycle. Mike Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University, sees the newly appointed FDA commissioner as a clear step up from Obama’s choice; this new one, he says, could pave a way forward for less stringent regulations on the e-cigarette market. The conservative site Heat Street wrote that “God sent electronic-cigarette users a savior on November 8th: Donald Trump.” On his fifth day in office, Trump reportedly received a letter from California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, stating that 2016 regulations needed to go or be delayed.

According to AEI resident scholar Sally Satel, the backlash against e-cigarettes largely falls on the left side of the political spectrum. In 2012–13, sales of disposable e-cigarettes grew about 320 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But in 2016 the FDA expanded regulations to include a premarket approval process for all tobacco e-cigarette products. Some industry spokespeople say the regs are too harsh and might cost at least $2 million for each product. This wouldn’t hurt big tobacco, many e-cigarette supporters say, but it might price small producers out of this monetary commitment.

It’s likely that Trump will add e-cigarettes to his long list of items to deregulate. Perhaps his administration will take a page from ally Theresa May’s country, which has historically allowed e-cigarettes easily into the market. Just as the U.S. cracked down on e-cigarettes, the Royal College of Physicians in the U.K. issued a report that summarized e-cigarette research and concluded that the benefits (reducing cigarette consumption) outweighed the dangers (teenagers becoming addicted to nicotine). Not every country, like Australia and Scotland, wants easy access to vaping, fearful of what it might do to the next generation that is already less addicted to nicotine than previous generations.

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, says the e-cigarette community will become powerful — at least as powerful as the marijuana legalization cohort, if it isn’t already. It’s certainly happening: When New Mexico state representative Liz Thomson advocated a tax on e-cigarettes and a ban on their use in some businesses, the vaping lobby rallied, and Thomson lost in November by fewer than 500 votes. And that’s just one example. Trump’s victory, Norquist says, spells a win for e-cigarettes. If Hillary had won, he says, the Obama administration’s decision would have stood. Now that legacy is uncertain.

As the roar gets louder that e-cigarette companies are under an unjust thumb, Swarztrauber offers up another lens for those on the left. “You can be as skeptical as you want about those companies, but the end result is public-health benefits,” Swarztrauber says. In the Deep South, he notes, liberals gripe that abstinence-only education isn’t effective. “How is this any different? If you say, ‘You’re doing something harmful, and there’s no alternative than to stop,’ how is that harm reduction?”

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