Scott Gottlieb and the path to prohibition

My latest article for Reason digs a little deeper into the FDA’s plans for tobacco regulation in the United States, including the path that could lead to prohibition of traditional cigars:

Technically, the FDA is forbidden by law from requiring the complete elimination of nicotine in tobacco. But it could mandate that nicotine be reduced to near zero. The FDA says it is considering the pros and cons of “lowering nicotine in cigarettes to a minimally or non-addictive level through the creation of a potential nicotine product standard.” The idea is that new smokers would never get addicted, and current smokers would be forced to quit or turn elsewhere for their fix.

In this scenario, cigarette smokers would switch to e-cigs or similar devices. Realistically, however, many of them will choose to stick with actual tobacco, sourcing it on the black market or buying it in other legal forms such as roll-your-own, pipe tobacco, small cigars, and premium cigars.

Therein lies the threat for people who enjoy smoking any of those products. Cigarette smokers who switch to these instead of e-cigarettes would offset the gains of regulation, inviting further interventions. A rule that began by targeting only cigarettes could end up affecting all forms of combustible tobacco, including premium cigars.

I also flesh out some ideas from a previous post about where debates over tobacco control are headed. Abstinence vs. harm reduction is no longer the most important divide moving forward:

The increasingly aggressive moves by Gottlieb’s FDA reveal the biggest divide in today’s tobacco policy debate. On the one hand, there are people who favor an open, classically liberal approach to regulation that expands the range of choices. On the other, there are advocates of top-down, technocratic planning to reduce it.

Both groups recognize that nicotine products exist on a continuum of harm, with some substantially more dangerous than others. The liberals want to see cigarettes, the most dangerous product on the continuum, suffer creative destruction by voluntary means, with smokers choosing for themselves to take up safer alternatives. Educational campaigns, targeted advertising, and preferential tax treatment could provide additional nudges. The technocrats seek not to nudge but to shove, urging the FDA to manage the market from above by banning some products entirely and coercively rendering others less appealing.

Read the whole thing.

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