Don’t panic: How dynamism and technocracy define the debate over e-cigs

Yesterday for Slate I wrote a long article on current regulations surrounding e-cigarettes, their potential for harm reduction, and teen use of Juul and other vapor devices. So naturally this morning the FDA announced major changes to its policies and secretive new data. (In an email to my editor this weekend I’d said, “Let’s try to run it soon, just because you never know when the FDA might announce something that would force re-writes.” I’ve been down this road before.) I’ll use this post to talk about both my article and the new announcement.

First, my article in Slate. The gist of it:

Teenage use of e-cigarettes is a legitimate concern to address, but it’s important not to panic. The media’s alarmism obscures a wealth of good public health news: Smoking rates are lower than they’ve ever been, they’re dropping fastest among young cohorts, and young adults actually have a better understanding of the relative risks of conventional and electronic cigarettes than do their elders.

This is all still accurate and much of the piece expands on this with data. Polling among adults shows that beliefs about e-cigarettes are still wildly out of touch with the developing consensus that they are much safer than conventional cigarettes. In addition, many people erroneously believe nicotine to be a primary disease-causing agent in tobacco. Media alarmism and the FDA’s marketing restrictions both contribute to the spread of this misinformation.

I also write a bit about the Swedish and Norwegian experiences with snus, a form of oral tobacco that imposes fewer risks than both smoking and American-style chewing tobacco. The Swedish success is fairly well-known at this point, the Norwegian one less so. Snus use eclipsed smoking in Norway for the first time last year, with the shift in consumption most pronounced in young people. Smoking rates in both countries, especially among young cohorts, are now remarkably low.

The last part of the article gets into the fundamental approaches to nicotine regulation. The debate is usually portrayed as between two camps: those who want to eliminate nicotine use entirely and those who focus on harm reduction. I suggest that a deeper divide is between technocrats and dynamists, the latter term borrowed from Virginia Postrel:

[Allowing] adults to make informed choices about nicotine frightens regulatory gatekeepers. The abstinence-only and harm reductionist camps have different visions for combating smoking, but both believe that their visions should be imposed via legislation or through agencies like the FDA. They share a technocratic approach that tolerates change only when it’s tightly managed. As Virginia Postrel described technocracy in her insightful 1998 book The Future and Its Enemies, “Technocrats are ‘for the future,’ but only if someone is in charge of making it turn out to plan.” That there must be a plan is never questioned: “The issue isn’t whether the future should be molded to fit one static ideal. It’s what that static ideal should be. There must be a single blueprint for everyone.”

Opposition to technologies like Juul must be understood in part by the ways that they upset that static vision. Technocracy depends on central planning and top-down control. E-cigarettes, in contrast, are all bottom-up and unruly. They arose in vape shops and strip malls hacked by users mixing flavors, components, and nicotine concentrations to meet their individual needs. This messy disorder made room for an evolutionary process that refined innovations that worked and discarded those that didn’t. While no one could have predicted the spectacularly sudden rise of Juul in particular, it’s not so surprising that the leading e-cigarette company turns out to be a total newcomer rather than one of the pharmaceutical or tobacco companies that have profited from decades of stasis.

Which brings us to today’s announcement from FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb. When he delayed enforcement of the agency’s pre-market review requirements last year, I wrote approvingly that this signaled a lighter touch at the FDA that recognized the potential of harm reduction. A year later, armed with new data and perhaps motivated by a summer of media stories about teens addicted to Juul, he’s threatening to roll this back:

[In] view of the accelerating use among youth, we’re actively considering whether we will enforce the premarket review provision earlier, when it is apparent that these products are now subject to widespread youth use.

One factor we’re closely evaluating is the availability of characterizing flavors. We know that the flavors play an important role in driving the youth appeal. And in view of the trends underway, we may take steps to curtail the marketing and selling of flavored products. We’re now actively evaluating how we’d implement such a policy.

[…]

[We’re] seriously reconsidering our compliance dates for the submission of product applications when it is apparent that there’s widespread youth use of the product. We’re especially focused on the flavored e-cigarettes. And we’re seriously considering a policy change that would lead to the immediate removal of these flavored products from the market.

In addition, the FDA is stepping up enforcement at the retail level and launching a campaign to deter e-cig use among youth. If implemented properly, these latter two initiatives are entirely appropriate responses to youth uptake of e-cigs. Juul as a company has also been justifiably criticized for its lifestyle marketing (though the FDA makes advertising as a harm reduction tool virtually impossible). But bringing back the agency’s notoriously burdensome pre-market review and banning flavors (which are preferred by many adult users) threatens to undermine the potential of e-cigarettes to reduce conventional smoking.

According to Dr. Gottlieb, this reversal is justified by data that the agency is not ready to make public:

We have good reason to draw this conclusion based on the trends and data that we’ve seen, some of which is still preliminary and will be finalized in the coming months and presented publicly.

I’m certainly curious to see this data. Based on the latest publicly available figures, this is what I wrote for Slate:

The 2015 National Youth Tobacco Survey, for example, found that nearly 38 percent of high school students had ever tried an e-cigarette. That sounds alarming, but very few of them (2.5 percent) reported regular use—and regular use is particularly rare among non-smoking youth. The latest available figures also suggest that use of e-cigarettes among high schoolers is down from its peak in 2015. That’s no reason to be complacent about teen use of Juul or any addictive substance, but the most current data available suggest that nightmare stories of a vaping-to-cigarette pathway are the exception, not the rule.

I’d considered adding an obvious disclaimer that the next release of statistics might show youth use increasing again due to the popularity of Juul, and in hindsight I wish I’d included it. This morning I asked the FDA about both the source of the data and more specifics about what they show, but their press officer was unable to provide any further information so we’re stuck evaluating the FDA’s announcement in the dark. If we did have access to the data, I’d want to know the degree to which increases are in experimentation, occasional use, and regular use.

What’s notably absent from Dr. Gottlieb’s remarks is any mention of youth smoking. While teenage use of e-cigarettes or any addictive product is worrisome in itself, the chief fear is that teens who try e-cigs will move on to take up the real thing. Unsurprisingly, teens who experiment with one forbidden product are more likely to experiment with another, so many young people report having tried both. But thus far the rise in e-cigarettes has been accompanied by a fall in smoking. The 2017 youth smoking rate was 7.6%, a record low, down from 12.7% in 2013. In terms of actual health outcomes, avoiding cigarette use remains by far the most important aim. If the FDA has new survey data, it’s reasonable to guess that it asks about both vapor products and cigarettes. An increase in the use of the latter would bolster the case for the agency’s new course of action, so the omission of any remarks about youth smoking is curious. I asked if their new data indicated anything about trends in youth smoking, but once again their press office was unable to provide additional information.

As with any controlled substance, it’s challenging to balance an open market for adults with the need to prevent uptake by youth. But it’s vital not to shut down innovation in the market for cigarette alternatives. The FDA says it still believes in the potential non-combustion products, but today it’s a very open question whether its actions will reflect this. As Jacob Sullum remarks at Reason:

The federal government is threatening to eliminate that alternative even while tolerating conventional cigarettes, which are far more hazardous and also end up in the mouths of people who are not old enough to buy them legally. If underage consumption does not justify a ban on tobacco cigarettes (and I don’t think it does), it cannot possibly justify a ban on competing products that are much safer.

The narrow questions about flavors and lifestyle marketing are a preview of the debates to come. The abstinence/harm reduction divide is gradually going to become less salient than the technocracy/dynamism divide. Harm reduction advocates have been focused on the benefits of shifting consumption from cigarettes to much safer forms of nicotine delivery. This is entirely correct, but the achievement of this goal will bring other questions to the fore. What’s the best approach for people who continue to smoke cigarettes in spite of everything? What about people who smoke for pleasure, perhaps with cigars or pipes? What about non-smokers who take up vaping because they like it?

Scott Gottlieb has taken a looser approach than his predecessor, but the FDA is still committed to central planning. The agency has already noted that it intends to mandate lower nicotine yields in cigarettes, and if history is any guide then it won’t be long before this rule is extended to other forms of tobacco. The pervasive assumption is  that bringing tobacco and nicotine use down to zero is a universal goal that everybody shares. Gottlieb speaks of “on-ramps” and “off-ramps” to nicotine as if he’s a city planner optimizing traffic patterns. But we’re not all headed to the same destination. As the gains of harm reduction are realized, the underlying questions of consent and coercion that have always surrounded tobacco will coming roaring back.

In my Slate piece I briefly quoted an interview with Karl Lund, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Here’s a longer excerpt from that interview that gets to the point:

I think nicotine will become a more accepted drug if delivered without severe health risks. The tobacco control community will eventually have to accept that we have to separate nicotine from tobacco. In the 1990s the strategy was to warn against the axis of evil; cigarettes – nicotine – tobacco industry. Now we are paying the price for this merging. The goal should be to reduce tobacco-related deaths, not to make the society nicotine-free.

I think much of the opposition against THR and novel nicotine products comes from the fact that health side has been on the outside and not in the driver-seat of its development. These innovative products have emerged without their control and approval. This is a consumer-driven process. It is difficult for us to realize and accept that these products may have greater potential to make smoking obsolete than the regulations many of us have spent a lifetime fighting for.

Reducing tobacco-related deaths is a noble goal, but there are limits to what planning can achieve without crushing personal liberties. The dynamic approach to tobacco regulation empowers smokers by giving them safer alternatives to the cigarettes. Like Scott Gottlieb, I’m optimistic that many of them will take them and eventually quit using nicotine altogether. But the purpose of government should not be to impose the preferences of regulators onto everyone else by micromanaging the market and placing ever more coercive restraints on adult behavior. It’s too often forgotten by authorities in tobacco control, but the aim of a liberal society is to give people the space to pursue their own ends, not to insist that they conform to ours. An open market in nicotine products will indeed lead to healthier outcomes than the status quo, but the ultimate patterns of use are not ours to control.

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Upcoming speaking gigs: Barra Mexico and Bar Convent Brooklyn

I’m headed out of town today for a brief vacation in Mexico City and San Miguel de Allende, followed by back-to-back cocktail conferences. I’m looking forward to my first attendance at Barra Mexico this coming weekend, followed by the debut of Bar Convent Brooklyn next week. If you’re attending either conference, you’re  welcome to join for my beer cocktail class at the former or an aquavit tasting at the latter.

June 10, Mexico City: Beer cocktail class at 5:00 pm, followed by a guest shift at Fifty Mils at 9:00 pm.

June 13, Brooklyn: Aquavit tasting with various styles of aquavit from around the world at 3:45 pm.

Suggestions for where to go in Mexico City or San Miguel de Allende? Comments are open!

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Ignore the online haters. Eat at Kachka.

Portland has seen its share of absurd restaurant controversies. The latest has, unfortunately, ensnared the owners of one of my favorite places, the wonderful and charming Kachka owned by Bonnie and Israel Morales. Bonnie is of Jewish Belarusan heritage, her grandmother having narrowly escaped the slaughter of more than 900 Jews in Bobr, Belarus in 1941. This makes it all the more painful to them that their restaurant is now subject to inflammatory headlines such as “Kachka denies siding with customer wearing Nazi-affiliated logo” (the ignorant, click-baity headline chosen by our local Eater affiliate).

How did this happen? In brief, a customer came into the restaurant wearing the t-shirt below:

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Precisely what happened next is disputed, but in broad outline, a few other customers objected to management that this was a Nazi t-shirt. Kachka didn’t immediately eject the patron, and the customers then confronted the man in person. From Israel Morales’ account:

Israel Morales said the situation played out over 45 minutes. He’d been alerted by a customer that a man was possibly wearing a “Nazi propaganda shirt” and was researching it online when things escalated.

“While I was starting to look into the shirt online, the rest of his party paid their bill. After they paid, they began talking loudly, which alerted me. One by one, each of the three people left, but not without causing a scene, disturbing other guests,” he says. “[redacted] stood up and confronted the man wearing the shirt—which is when I stepped in. I felt this could become a dangerous situation and my job as a business owner is to keep my customers safe. I walked up to them and barely got two words out before she stormed out.”

It might have ended there, except that one of the guests then posted about the incident online, including a photo of the man in question that included his face. Things snowballed. The owners were accused of siding with Nazis, their restaurant was dragged on social media, and Israel and Bonnie felt the need to issue a statement denying that they support Nazis.

The allegation is ridiculous on its face, given Bonnie and Israel’s heritage and the inspiration for their restaurant. But were the angry customers even correct about the intentions of the shirt’s wearer? The guests leaped to the conclusion that the shirt is Nazi apparel, but “Luftwaffe” is simply German for “air force”  and the term is still in use. The logo differs, too, from the Nazi-era Luftwaffe, in which the bird grasps a swastika in its talons. The swastika is notably absent in the shirt above. Similar shirts are for sale in Germany, where Nazi symbolism is banned. Friends more informed about German symbols and fonts than I am (including one from Germany) have said that they would not assume the design is inherently affiliated with Nazism. It’s understandable that an American might question it, but the wearer’s intentions can’t be gleaned from a photo.

I don’t know who the wearer is, so I can’t ask him why he wore it (though I’m happy to speak with him if he would like to get in touch). A friend of mine who works at Kachka, however, posted an account on Facebook. According to a server who spoke with the guest, the person said that he was visiting from out of town and had purchased the shirt at an aviation museum in Seattle.

There aren’t that many aviation in museums in Seattle, so I looked into it. One of them is the Flying Heritage and Combat Museum in Everett, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The museum has a gift shop. Photos of the museum’s gift shop are on their website. And if you zoom in on one of the photos, you see this:

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At the upper left of the t-shirt rack you can see what looks to be the same shirt that the guest was wearing. His story checks out.*

Now it’s possible, though unlikely, that this guy is a closet white supremacist who deliberately wore this shirt to a Jewish-owned restaurant in Portland to trigger the libs. It’s much more probable that he’s telling the truth and that he is just a guy on vacation who saw a cool-looking shirt in a museum and wore it because he liked it. Absent any evidence of the former, we should assume the latter.

Regardless of the wearer’s intentions, this clearly exonerates the owners and staff of Kachka. The shirt’s meaning isn’t obvious at a glance and it’s taken several days to figure out where it came from. Israel had to attempt to figure out what it meant during a busy service. Accusing a guest of being a Nazi is not something a restaurant owner should do lightly, and he was right to look into it instead of making assumptions.

I’m not one to use “SJW” as an epithet, but this incident was Portland social justice activism at its worst, potentially destroying the reputation of both the owners of Kachka and the unknown diner without any context. The whole incident could have likely been avoided by simply talking to the person wearing the shirt in a civilized manner. (And let this be a caution to the “punch Nazis” crowd and be glad that these three customers were more into shaming on Facebook than committing assault; other people with that mindset might have ended up slugging an innocent tourist.)

The people who dragged Kachka into this mess owe them apology, as do the journalists who covered the incident poorly. I hope lots of others in Portland go in to the restaurant to show their support; it’s a fantastic place and they deserve your business. And if you’re not in Portland, this would be a great time to buy Bonnie’s new cookbook.

*For what it’s worth, I’ve reached out to the museum to see if they can provide more background on the design. I’ll update if they get back to me. I think it’s unlikely that Paul Allen is selling Nazi memorabilia in his museum. Update: Statement from the museum follows.

The shirt referenced was made as part of a 2014 Luftwaffe exhibit and is no longer available. Luftwaffe, which means “air force” in German, has since taken on a new meaning that is not consistent with our values of equality, respect and diversity. Our organization is dedicated to an inclusive environment free of discrimination and intolerance.

[Disclosures: I know the owners of Kachka from frequenting the restaurant and from Portland food events, and they carry a few spirits I work with.]

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Distillery visits: Crown Royal at Gimli

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In the past few years I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of distilleries, ranging from tiny start-ups in rural Alaska  to massive whiskey operations in Kentucky and Tennessee. There’s almost always some interesting detail to be gleaned at the small places; quirks like a still cobbled together from a beer keg that runs batches so slowly that the distiller has to spend the night beside  it sleeping on a cot, or a doorway to a bottling room cut too narrowly for a pallet of bottles to fit through, so that the bottles have to laboriously carried by hand in and out of the room.

The bigger distilleries are impressive in their own right. The column stills often extend for multiple stories into the air; the operations are finely tuned to work continuously, requiring a complex supply chain of grains, yeasts, and mashes to be ever-ready for distillation. These are less romantic, sometimes feeling more like an industrial factory than a place producing finely crafted spirits.

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After enough visits to the  big distilleries, I’ve started to feel like I’ve entered a plateau in knowledge. I know enough to get the gist of what’s happening in almost all of them, but not enough to know what additional information to ask about unless a distillery is doing something really unusual. A professional distiller would undoubtedly spot all kinds of interesting details, but after visiting several highly efficient distilleries, there’s not as much for me to pick up as a casual visitor.

Thus when I was invited to be a guest on a press trip to the Crown Royal distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, I was on the fence about going. I mentioned this to my friend Joe Spiegel, the importer of Icelandic Brennivin, who excitedly insisted that I had to go. Gimli, it turns out, is not just the name of a dwarf in the Lord of the Rings. It’s also the largest Icelandic settlement in North America. My curiosity piqued as much by the history of the town as by the whisky distillery, I accepted the invitation. When else was I likely to end up in Manitoba?

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Gimli, located about an hour north of Winnipeg, is home to a bit more than 6,000 people. Two events stand out its history. The first is its founding by Icelanders fleeing a series of bad winters and a dramatic volcanic eruption for the promise of a new land offering bad winters without the volcanic eruptions. They settled in Gimli on the shores of Lake Manitoba, creating a semi-independent settlement called New Iceland in the 1870s, which was eventually fully integrated into the province. Their legacy is still visible in the annual Icelandic Festival, in street names like “Odin’s Way” and “Siglavik Road,” and in the giant viking statue that stands at the shore of the lake.

The second event is the Gimli Glider, a near-disastrous aviation incident that occurred in 1983. The Canadian government had recently converted from Imperial to metric measurements, resulting in a miscalculation of the fuel needed to power a Boeing 767 from Montreal to Edmonton. Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel en route and was left with no choice but to glide to a rough landing at Gimli’s abandoned air force base, directly on to a runway that had, unbeknownst to the pilots, been converted to use for go-cart racing. Miraculously, no one died. It’s a hell of a story. (If anyone needs a name for a Crown Royal cocktail, “Gimli Glider” appears to have not yet been claimed.)

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I didn’t arrive until dusk, and there’s not much to the winter nightlife in Gimli, so my time exploring the town was unfortunately rather limited. I would have loved a little more time to roam the shore; strolling along as the cold wind comes in off Lake Manitoba, it’s easy to imagine why Icelanders felt at home here.

At Joe’s insistence, I did come prepared for one mission: A visit to Brennivins Pizza Hüs. (In Iceland “Brennivin” is both a brand name and a generic word for liquor, which can be confusing. I don’t know why it’s used here to name a pizza place.) It was closed when I got there after dinner, but I’d packed the appropriate attire for a photo. I spied a couple bottles of Brennivin inside, but alas, could not complete the trifecta by drinking Brennivin at Brennivins while wearing a Brennivin t-shirt. The menu here is wild, with pizzas coming in African, Ukrainian, Alfredo, Perogi, Mexican, and all kinds of other varieties, some of which sound a little off-putting. I want to go back!

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My weird obsession with aquavit aside, this was a whisky trip, and so of course we were greeted with some warming Crown Royal Hot Toddies and other excellent cocktails served at an ice bar within a heated tent by the lake. Our first night’s activities were relaxed and experiential, a prelude to the more informational tour awaiting the following day.

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The highlight of this was an end of night ice carving challenge. I’ve cut small cubes of ice into very rough spheres, but I’d never taken on anything this big. Our challenge was to carve the blocks into the shape of Crown Royal bottle.

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We were sort of successful, if you’re grading on a very generous curve.

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The next morning we went out to visit the actual distillery. Unlike the other large whiskey distilleries I’ve visited, which cater to tourists with highly organized tours, scripted guides, and big visitors’ centers, the Gimli distillery is strictly business. Whiskey tourism is big in Kentucky and Tennessee, but not yet in Manitoba; we donned safety vests, glasses, and ear plugs for the tour instead of boarding branded buses.

We weren’t permitted to take photographs within the distillery, but it was a fascinating walk-through, with stops by the hammering grain mills, the vast fermenters (some of which are open), and up and around the multi-story stills. One striking thing about the place is that despite its size and complexity, we only occasionally crossed paths with the people working in it. It’s a highly automated facility, overseen in one central control room, that produces a mind-boggling amount of whisky with a modest labor force.

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Several types of whisky are distilled here, ranging from high-rye and high-corn whiskeys distilled in batches similar to US standards and used for flavoring, to much lighter blending whiskies made in the giant columns.

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Though there’s not much romance in the distilling side of the operation, I did walk away with more insight into the work that goes into blending. We got to meet with their blenders and engage in a much dumbed-down version of what they do for a living, trying our hand at sensory analysis on different samples to see if we could consistently spot differences, and creating our own blends from a handful of whisky samples. (The blenders themselves draw on hundreds of barrels to make a consistent a product, compared to the seven or eight we worked with.)

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As with almost any whisky tour, the visit to a barrel warehouse was the most memorable part. When you pile up thousands of barrels of cask-strength whisky in an enclosed space, the concentrated aromas of wood and whisky are wonderfully sweet. Thanks to tight insulation, they were more intense here than in any other distillery I’ve visited, so much so that the air had to be sampled for safety before we were allowed to enter. My first breaths caught in my chest while I adapted to it, and even after that I avoided breathing too deeply. It’s a heady place!

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Inside the barrel room we got to sample directly from four barrels. Ordinarily these would be blended as flavoring whiskeys, mingled with the cleaner base whiskies to create the familiar Crown Royal bottlings. This was a rare opportunity to try them as is. Some of these were very good; a high-proof bourbon-style whiskey that had spent more than a decade in wood stood out in particular for me. Unblended, these don’t fit the profile of Crown Royal’s finished product (or that of most Canadian whisky), which aims for a softer, easy-drinking palate. If they ever did release them in limited quantities, though, I think serious whiskey drinkers would be surprised and delighted to try them.

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Our trip concluded with a final surprise: A helicopter flight over Gimli and the Crown Royal distillery. I’ve been on more distillery tours than I can count, and this is the first that has involved a helicopter, and it was my first time in a helicopter period.

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Is a helicopter tour really necessary for understanding the production of Canadian whisky? Clearly not. But it is really cool. So in an attempt to tie this into whisky production, I’ll note that the view of Manitoba from the air  drives homes that the land is really, really, really flat. And that’s good for growing corn and rye, which is necessary for making the whisky.

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[Photos not taken by my are courtesy of Crown Royal.]

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Recent reading

It’s the end of the year, which means I’ll likely be catching up with a few posts on my neglected blog, this one about the best books I read in 2017. This was an exciting year of travel for me, with trips to Vancouver, Manitoba, Australia, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, plus many trips cities throughout the US. One habit I’ve gotten into when visiting somewhere new is to pick up novels at least partially set in that location, which affected my novel reading this year. I leaned more toward fiction overall, due in part to much of my non-fiction reading being devoted to research for a forthcoming project. Some highlights:

Havoc, Tom Kristensen — I had a hard time picking out which book to read for my first visit to Copenhagen, but since I was on aquavit business, this novel about an interwar literary editor drinking himself into oblivion seemed the most apt selection. It’s depressing and the characters irredeemable, but it’s a memorable portrait of the city’s “brown bars” of a long time ago. Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much else by Kristensen translated into English yet.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan — This Man Booker Prize winner shifts back and forth through time, from contemporary Australia to the travails of Australian war prisoners forced into labor on the Burma Railway during World War II. At the center of this is Dorrigo Evans, the prisoners’ doctor, torn between tales of his own heroism, the gruesome futility of his efforts, and a gradually unfolding mystery of a lost love. It’s a brutal read at times, but the disparate threads tie together remarkably well.

Jasper Jones, Craig Silvey — This Australian answer to To Kill a Mockingbird wears its influences on its sleeve with several explicit allusions to the novel. Aimed at young adults, but vivid and engrossing. There’s now a movie of it too, which I haven’t seen.

Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu — It’s been a long time since any book grabbed me the way this Chinese science fiction trilogy did, and I devoured the entire series over just a few weeks of intensive travel. The intrigue in the first book builds slowly; The Dark Forest is the most narratively satisfying; the concluding Death’s End becomes immense in scale, following the repercussions of Liu’s universe-building ideas to their conclusions at some expense to character development (or perhaps Liu is just less adept at writing a female lead). Tyler Cowen suggests reading a plot summary of the first book before beginning it. I’m more inclined to suggest going in knowing as little as possible, skipping even the promotional summaries.

Nicotine, Nell Zink — I picked this one up for its subject matter, curious to see how the kind of weirdo who does pro-tobacco activism in 2017 would be portrayed. It’s zany, funny, empathetic, and not really that much about tobacco. Here’s a glowing review from Vox, which is what inspired me to pick it up.

Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman — A thematic follow up to American Gods. If you like one, you’ll probably like the other.

The Show That Never Ends, David Weigel — Dave’s been a friend of mine for years and I’ve long followed his political reporting. His first book is a deep-dive into prog rock. What do I know about prog? Not a thing going in, but Dave’s affection for the genre is infectious and I enjoyed reading this one through. I’ve even been playing a little prog rock at home once in a while (fair warning to anyone who comes over for drinks).

The Beer Bible, Jeff Alworth — This one I haven’t read through completely, but I’ve found it to be an indispensable resource whenever I need information about beer. Jeff is deeply knowledgeable and engaging as a writer.

Stubborn Attachments, Tyler Cowen — Initially released a bonus inducement for readers pre-ordering The Complacent Class, Tyler has made the link publicly available now. Cowen is one of the most interesting social commentators, and this serves as a foundational defense of the kind of libertarianism he’s committed to.Opt Book

The Future Eaters, Tim Flannery — I’ve only just begun reading this one, but given its strong recommendations, my previous enjoyment of Flannery’s writing, and the Australian books already on this list, I’m taking the risk of including it.

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Schedule at Bar Convent Berlin

I’m back in Germany for my second Bar Convent Berlin. I have a packed schedule of four classes and panels this year, with the schedule below. It would be great to see readers there! As a bit of preview, here also is an interview with Brew Berlin about my history with beer. My BCB schedule:

International Trends – The organizers of BCB asked me if I could speak on a panel about international trends in beer. “Sure,” I said. I travel a lot and visit breweries and beer events all over the world, so I felt up for this. “Great,” they said. “You’ll be on stage with Garrett Oliver.” OK, I wasn’t quite expecting that, but I’ll try to hold up my end of things. We’ll be joined as well by David Cohen, Dirk Hoplitschek, Frank Boon, and Mihaela Dimitrova. This is on Tuesday at 2:00 pm on the beer stage.

Beer & Cocktail – I’ll teach my class on how to use beer as a cocktail ingredient, covering seven different styles of beer cocktails and tasting through four of them. “When we made beer cocktails part of the show two years ago, it was a curiosity in Germany,” says BCB. “Nowadays, almost every cocktail bar worth its salt has at least one beer drink on the menu.” This class happens twice on the beer stage: First on Tuesday at 5:00 pm and then again on Wednesday at 12:30 pm.

Akquawhat? – My responsibilities at this year’s BCB will wrap up with this guided tasting through various world styles of aquavit, covering Scandinavia, Germany, and the United States. This runs on Wednesday at 4:00 pm at Taste Forum B.

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The FDA and e-cigs at Slate

A fun thing about being a public policy writer is when you put a lot of time into researching and writing a piece, only to have the federal agency you’re covering make a surprise announcement of significant changes right after your finish it. That happened to me on Friday morning, when I awoke to an unexpected announcement from the FDA that made the article I’d stayed up writing the night before obsolete.

That was inconvenient for me, but the news is great for users of e-cigarettes. The FDA’s new direction looks like it will avert the regulatory disaster that was on the way. My revised article for Slate explains exactly what’s going on.

Although I didn’t have space to go into at Slate, the announcement is also a reprieve for cigar smokers and producers.

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Friday beer blogging: The Variant

Variant

Living in Oregon, I don’t often get to try beers from Schlafly in St. Louis. Fortunately, though, they occasionally send new releases my way. The latest is limited to just 5,000 bottles that come out tomorrow and will likely sell out quickly. So despite this being a special release in a bottle that looks so nice that I almost didn’t want to open it, a friend and I got into it yesterday.

The Variant is the first release in Schlafly’s Ibex Rare series. This stout is blended from two components; part of it was aged in port barrels, and the other infused with cocoa nibs. The result is a very rich, very dark stout that comes in at 9.4% abv.

The blending approach taken here is definitely a good thing. The beer takes on a moderately lively carbonation and the dark chocolate flavors are well-integrated without dominating the beer. It’s dark and very roasty, with hints of coffee and a light savory note. The port influence is more mild, at least to my palate, coming across perhaps in dark fruit on the finish. It’s not overly sweet, keeping one coming back for more.

There’s a tendency with event beers like this to go big in many directions, and I sort of expected that here, but one of the great things about The Variant is that it avoids excess. It’s barrel aged but not too heavy, chocolatey but not overwhelmingly so, and strikes a great balance between its sweet malts and bitter roasted notes. Even the 9.4% abv, while not exactly sessionable, is moderate enough to make sharing a 750 ml bottle between two people entirely reasonable. The beer succeeds in seeming special without being extreme or gimmicky. Or, as my friend summed up, “It’s one of the best stouts I’ve ever had.”

It’s really good, and if I lived in the distribution area I’d keep an eye out for another bottle. Definitely recommended, and a great start to what will hopefully be a series of beers that continues to be worth seeking out when they emerge.

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Beer cocktails in Melbourne for Good Beer Week

GoodBeerWeek

 

This May, I’ll be making my first trip to Australia to do a few events in collaboration with Good Beer Week, one of the world’s largest beer festivals held every year in Melbourne. The scope of the program is amazing and I’m very excited to be a part of it. Tickets for events went on sale this week; if you’re going to be in Melbourne, get them while they last!

Cocktails on Tap at Boilermaker House 5/13 —  A masterclass on beer cocktails made in six different styles, with tastings of course! $40

Beer Cocktails at Black Pearl 5/14 — Teaming up with the staff at one of Melbourne’s best cocktail bars for a collaborative menu and a night of guest bartending. No tickets required.

Portlandia at Le Bon Ton 5/15 — It’s a Portland takeover with cocktails from me and beers and brewers from Breakside, Commons, and Deschutes. One of Good Beer Week’s featured events, so likely to sell out fast. $89

Beer Cocktail Battle at Carwyn Cellars 5/21 — A beer cocktail throwdown, me vs the staff of Carwyn Cellars. The audience decides the winner! Limited to just 25 seats. $50

Once Good Beer Week is over, I’ll likely head down to Tasmania for vacation. Any travel tips for Melbourne, Tasmania, or other nearby areas is most welcome.

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Smoking bans at Slate, plus a new study from Japan

Longtime readers of my blog may remember the “heart miracle” studies of the previous decade. These studies purported to show that implementing smoking bans would bring about drastic and immediate reductions in the rate of heart attacks. I and several other writers expressed doubt for a variety of reasons, noting the small sample sizes and methodological oddities that seemed to point to a pre-determined conclusion. At the time, however, there weren’t many large scale studies being done that could settle the question.

Those large scale studies now exist, and as I write today at Slate, the evidence for the heart miracle hypothesis isn’t holding up:

[…] now that the evidence has had time to accumulate, it’s also become clear that the extravagant promises made by anti-smoking groups—that implementing bans would bring about extraordinary improvements in cardiac health—never materialized. Newer, better studies with much larger sample sizes have found little to no correlation between smoking bans and short-term incidence of heart attacks, and certainly nothing remotely close to the 60 percent reduction that was claimed in Helena. The updated science debunks the alarmist fantasies that were used to sell smoking bans to the public, allowing for a more sober analysis suggesting that current restrictions on smoking are extreme from a risk-reduction standpoint.

It’s a rather long piece and it covers a lot of ground, from the original heart miracle in Helena, Montana to the pervasive outdoor smoking bans that stigmatize smokers today. Read the whole thing.

During the editing of the article I also came across yet another new study from Japan. This one compares data from Hyogo Prefecture, one of the first regions in Japan to impose a smoking ban, to the control population of Gifu Prefecture. The time period is fairly long (one year before the ban, two years after) and the populations are large (5.58 million residents in Hyogo, 2.07 million in Gifu). One limitation of the study is that the Hyogo ban isn’t 100% comprehensive; businesses such as bars can allow smoking and some other businesses can have separate smoking rooms. Nonetheless, given the pervasiveness of smoking in Japan, even a partial ban would be expected to significantly reduce non-smokers’s exposure to secondhand smoke.

So what were the results? No trend in the number of acute coronary syndrome admissions appeared in either prefecture. “For the primary endpoint of this study, we did not observe a significant change from before to after the implementation of the partial smoking ban.”

The study did identify a small downward trend in Kobe City, which the authors attempt to spin as evidence that the smoking was in fact having the desired effect:

The reason why only Kobe City showed a significant decrease in the number of ACS admissions irrespective of subgroups is unclear. One possible reason is that the Hyogo Prefectural Capital Office is located in Kobe City, and social understanding of smoking legislation might have been accepted more widely. Indeed, questionnaires by Hyogo Prefectural Government Health & Welfare Department, distributed in the bars and restaurants larger than 100m2 in 2015, showed that the adherence rate to the smoking ban legislation was 97% in Kobe City and 88% in other Hyogo districts included in the present study. Therefore, compared with the other districts in Hyogo, the adherence rate to the smoking ban legislation was higher in Kobe City.

OK, maybe, but this seems like a stretch. One should always be skeptical of post-hoc attempts to explain why the effect one was looking for only appears in a certain subset of the data. It’s easy to come up with just-so stories that fit the expected narrative. There are myriad other factors that could be causing the decline, and chalking it up to slightly better adherence to an already partial smoking ban strikes me as a very unlikely (and very convenient!) candidate.

In any case, the bulk of high-quality research published in recent years weighs heavily against the idea that smoking bans will bring about miraculous health benefits. So as I argue in my Slate piece, let’s move on to a post-miraculous policy and make sensible accommodation for smokers’ preferences.

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A super bowl of punch

abbey street punch
Photo by David L. Reamer

I contributed the “Cocktail of the Week” feature for Distiller this week. There being some sort of big football game today, they asked me to write up something involved beer. I went with one of the recipes featured in my book, Erick Castro’s Abbey Street Punch from Polite Provisions in San Diego, California. This is a great one for winter parties, combining Irish whiskey, Jamaican rum, allspice dram, and stout. Click over for the recipe and some historical notes on using ale in punch.

(For more recipes like these, buy Cocktails on Tap: The Art of Mixing Spirits and Beer.)

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Blog in Review 2016

As has been typical for the past few years, I did very little blogging here and much more writing elsewhere, making the “blog in review” aspect of this annual look back increasingly irrelevant. In 2016 most of my published writing went to Reason, usually with some association to the drink world. I covered how whisky labeling regulations in the European Union make truthful Scotch labels illegal, how big craft breweries cash in on public subsidies to fund their expansions, how Mexican liquor regulations threatened traditional mezcal producers, how the FDA will make life much worse for cigar smokers, and how the decision in Citizens United protects one mezcal brand’s right to say “Donald eres un pendejo.”

Elsewhere I wrote about where to drink in Reykjavik for Eater, the rise of rice whiskey in the United States for Distiller, and for Mixology I covered the wonderfully malty ales of Alaska and the improbable rise of aquavit in the United States. I also contributed quite a few spirits reviews to Distiller, which enjoyed a great year of growth.

Although I redesigned this website in 2016, I didn’t write a lot of new content for the blog. Most of what’s new is travel related with coverage of a few events: A guide to some of my favorite spots in Berlin, a tour of craft distilleries in Reykjavik, tasting notes from the Collaboration Brew Fest in Colorado, and a short beer tour of Denver. On the cocktail side of things I contributed a couple rosé wine cocktails to a project by Underwood.

I’d hoped to have another book completed this year, but it’s not quite finished yet. Nor does it have a publisher, though it is coming along. I’ve also contributed a few entries to the forthcoming Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, edited by David Wondrich.

Moving on to the annual look at site stats, this year saw a huge drop in traffic, down from a record of just over 200,000 visits last year to 52,878 this year. Given that most of last year’s traffic was due to freakishly high numbers of visitors to the stapler post, that’s not too surprising. That was still the most popular post of the year, but by not nearly as large a margin.

Top posts of 2016
1. The stapler’s secret
2. Spirit of Sri Lanka: Coconut arrack
3. My coffee smells like tuna fish
4. MxMo Retro Redemption: Harvey Weissbanger
5. Mixing with the Mad Dog
6. How grilling meat really is like smoking a cigar
7. How to make coffee bitters
8. The mystery of the five-inch bull balls
9. Everybody loves an Irish Car Bomb
10. A tour of Reykjavik’s craft distilleries

Search traffic is too low to be of much interest anymore, though this site has apparently become one of the top results for information on Sri Lankan arrack. This is reflected in the geographic stats.

Top visitor countries of 2016
1. United States
2. United Kindgom
3. Canada
4. Sri Lanka
5. Australia
6. Germany
7. India
8. France
9. Netherlands
10. Philippines

More people visited my site from Colombo, Sri Lanka than from Portland, Oregon this year, which is not something I would have guessed!

Top visitor cities of 2016
1. New York
2. London
3. Colombo
4. Portland
5. Chicago
6. Los Angeles
7. San Francisco
8. Washington
9. Seattle
10. Houston

I don’t anticipate many changes to my frequency of posting here in 2017, but will update with links to new articles, podcasts, and maybe even a new book or two.

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End of year catching up: Beer and spirits

My work desk looks a little different than most people’s. There’s the usual clutter — pens, papers, a spare hard drive, a scanner — but also a whole lot of liquor. That’s not to fuel the writing process. It usually sits untouched, waiting for me to get around to reviewing it. Most of these reviews end up on Distiller, an app/website I’ve been contributing to for the past year. But others, for whatever reason, I don’t always have a place for, and they tend to accumulate. The ones worth writing about I try to round up every once in a while.

Since it’s the end of the year, here are beers and spirits that have been on my to-cover list. Some of these were samples from the producers or their PR reps, while others I picked up on my own. And these are only the ones that stood out for some reason; the others get given away or enjoyed without note.

Alaskan Perseverance

Alaskan Brewing Heritage Coffee Brown Ale and Perseverance — One of the highlights of the year for me was visiting Alaska for the first time. My tour included 18 breweries ranging from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula. (You can read about that trip in the piece I wrote for Mixology.) Since I was on the northern leg of the trip, I didn’t make it to the most well known brewery in the state, Alaskan Brewing in Juneau.

Luckily they sent me a few beers to try back home in Portland. First up is their Heritage Coffee Brown, replacing their seasonal pumpkin ale this year. This brown ale was made not only with cold-brewed Brazilian coffee, but also with pale malts roasted along with coffee beans, which is a process I haven’t seen attempted before. Malt-driven beers were what I loved most about Alaskan brewing, and this fits that mold: not too dark, but with a nice bitter roastiness and an upfront coffee note. Available in six packs, it’s a very solid winter beer.

The second beer was Perseverance, their Russian Imperial Stout made in celebration of the brewery’s 30th anniversary. This stout is accented by Alaskan birch syrup, wildflower honey, and a touch of alder smoke. Very rich and not at all bitter, I would have liked a little more smoke on this one, especially given Alaskan’s history with smoked porter (one of my consistent favorites). Nonetheless, it’s worth picking up if you find a bottle, especially if you like beers on the darker, sweeter side.

pFriem Pumpkin Bier — Speaking of pumpkin beers, this is the year that the backlash to the style seemed to reach its peak. I found pFriem’s rendition on the shelf and figured that if anyone could redeem the style, it was this Hood River brewer. Made with roasted pumpkin, pumpkin puree, seasonally appropriate spices, and Belgian yeasts, this was a fantastic seasonal offering. If you’re around Oregon you might still find this on shelves, and I highly recommend picking it up if you do.

Stark Spirits Sunshine Orange Brandy — Stark Spirits from Pasadena, California caught my eye because of their aquavit, but they also sent me a sample of this orange brandy, which I foolishly left unopened on my desk for a few months. When I finally cracked it open, I was blown away by the aroma of fresh orange peel. This is an eau-de-vie of California oranges, made of their peels and juice, and bottled at 100 proof without any added sugar. It’s everything you like about a good triple sec, but without the sweetness. It’s a really cool spirit, and I bet it has great potential in cocktails.

Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye — I wish I’d had an opportunity to review this rye before now, because it’s fantastic. Entered into barrel at 103 proof, my bottle ended up at 111.8 after maturation. (The bottles come from single barrels, and this year’s batches came in a little higher than last year’s release). It sips really well for its high proof, with notes of honey, pecan, and a touch of orange peel. Listing around $75, it would make a great last minute gift for an American whiskey lover if you can find a bottle.

Lagavulin 8 (200th Anniversary Edition) — I’ve described the standard Lagavulin 16 as one of my desert island whiskies, the kind of dram I can turn to again and again and always be happy (never mind the sensibility of drinking Islay Scotch on a tropical island). For the distillery’s 200th anniversary, Lagavulin released an affordable 8 year version (about $60) and an unaffordable 25 year version (about $1,000). You can guess which one they sent me a bottle of. As one would expect, the younger eight year is paler in color and lighter in oak and vanilla than the standard 16. This allows the brine and peat to stand out even more, without hitting you over the head with smoke. If you like peaty, maritime style Scotches, this one’s worth picking up while it lasts.

Arvesølvet Juleakevitt — I’m going to be annoying and include one spirit that you’re unlikely to see in the United States anytime soon. This Norwegian aquavit was part of my bounty from the Oslo duty free shop. A holiday aquavit with strong spice character, the 2015 edition that I picked up is aged in oloroso sherry and port casks for at least three years. For my friends who’ve never had the opportunity to try an aquavit like this, it’s been a game changer. If you’re passing through Norway, try to pick up a couple bottles (one for me, one for yourself).

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End of year catching up: Books

The first of potentially several end of year posts catching up on things I’ve meant to write about. Today, recommendations for non-fiction and fiction books I’ve had piling up over the course of 2016.

almostnearly

The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth — For someone who loves aquavit as much as I do, it was getting to be embarrassing that I’d never set foot in a Nordic country. This year I got to cross two off my list with visits to Iceland and Norway. My guide going in was this book by an English journalist living in Denmark. Booth is appreciative of the culture while engaging in a bit of friendly myth-busting of Scandinavian paradise. (Also recommended for: Anyone overly enchanted by Bernie Sanders, whose politics are significantly less free market than successful Nordic models.)

Unseen City by Nathanael Johnson — Nathanael Johnson’s work at Grist is consistently some of the best food and environmental writing I follow, willing to question easy orthodoxies. In this lighter book, he explores the urban wildlife of his neighborhood with his young daughter in San Francisco. Reading it had me paying attention to mundane nature in new ways, taking note of local ginkgo trees and pigeons’ feet for the first time.

Bourgeois Equality by Deirdre McCloskey — I’m admittedly only half-way through this one, but given the strength of the previous two entries in her Bourgeois trilogy, this one is self-recommending. And given ongoing turns against liberalism around the world, McCloskey’s defense of bourgeois rhetoric and values is more essential than ever.

Hall of Small Mammals by Thomas Pierce — With the opening story in which a reality TV star surreptitiously brings a revived dwarf woolly mammoth home for his Christian mother to hide from authorities, Pierce shows his talent for thrusting ordinary people into imaginatively weird situations. In another engaging story, a man struggles to come to terms with his girlfriend’s confession that she is married to another… but only in her unusually detailed dreams. The stories remain remarkably humane while following through on their odd premises.

Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes — It’s a controversial German-authored comic novel about Hitler coming back to life in contemporary Germany. Assumed to be an actor, the revived Hitler becomes a hit on national TV, misunderstanding the world and being misunderstood in turn. The story literally asks: If Hitler came back today, would we recognize him? Vermes tackles the question with humor — perhaps too much so, never fully undermining Hitler as protoganist, despite occasional glimpses of his cruel nature. With our own recent election of a white nationalist backed TV star as president, the satire cuts closer to home than when first published.

Honorable mentions: Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba had been on my to-read list for too long, and I learned a lot about both the rum company and Cuban history from reading it. Foolproof was a fascinating book on the challenges of managing risk in a complex, interconnected world. I really enjoyed my non-comics introduction to China Mieville’s writing via The City and the City, a detective novel forced into uniquely challenging conditions given its creative setting(s). Lanark was dense and deeply surreal; I think it was ultimately worth the read, though I’m not sure I’d have gotten through it absent long hours spent on planes.

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New podcast: Sipping Soylent on The Four Top

A few weeks ago Katherine Cole invited me to be a panelist on her new food and beverage podcast The Four Top, which is released every two weeks through Oregon Public Broadcasting. On this episode I join prolific beer writers Jeff Alworth and Lucy Burningham to discuss Soylent, issues in beer production, and the valuation of Yeti coolers. We also taste (and I mispronounce) Anchorage Brewing’s Anadromous sour ale aged in pinot noir barrels, and I recommend agricultural economist Jayson Lusk’s recent book Unnaturally Delicious. Listen and subscribe to new episodes here.

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Mezcal, Citizens United, and Donald Trump

My latest article for Reason combines three of my favorite things: mezcal, free speech, and insulting Donald Trump. “Donald eres un pendejo,” says a popular campaign from Ilegal Mezcal:

Messaging like Ilegal’s has struck a chord, but it’s also in tension with the idea, popular on the political left, that corporations should not engage in political speech. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, it has become common for liberals to assert that corporations don’t have free speech rights, that money is not speech, and that corporate expenditures intended to influence politics can be restricted unproblematically. A question worth asking then is: Would a hypothetical President Trump have constitutional authority to forbid mezcal companies from calling him a pendejo?

Nothing that Ilegal has done so far would have violated election laws as they stood before Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. At the time of the decision, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act applied only to broadcast, cable, and satellite communications that explicitly mentioned a candidate by name. But if that decision had gone differently, it’s also easy to imagine election laws being extended in ways that would have a chilling effect on advocacy.

Read the whole thing here.

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