Liberals, alias “progressives,” typically believe that just about anything can be improved by government regulation. In this they differ from newspapers, which typically believe that anything except newspapers can be improved by government regulation.

I mention this because I was surprised a couple of weeks ago to see this opening paragraph in a New York Times story:

“Taking a stance sharply at odds with most American public-health officials, a major British medical organization urged smokers to switch to electronic cigarettes, saying they are the best hope in generations for people addicted to tobacco cigarettes to quit.”

The story went on:

“The recommendation, laid out in a report published Thursday by the Royal College of Physicians, summarizes the growing body of science on e-cigarettes and finds that their benefits far outweigh the potential harms. It concludes resoundingly that, at least so far, the devices are helping people more than harming them, and that the worries about them – including that using them will lead young people to eventually start smoking traditional cigarettes – have not come to pass.”

Ironically, the story was published 10 days before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released its 500 pages of regulations that will late this summer effectively put out of business the e-cigarette and vaping industry as it exists today. The regulations are carefully tailored to benefit, yes, big tobacco, at the expense of the many small companies that have built an industry that is saving lives according to the British medical report and according to the many – myself included – who were able to quit smoking (after decades, in my case) through e-cigarettes and vaping.

In the regulations, which go into effect in August, the FDA lumps e-cigs and vaping products together with cigars, hookah tobacco and pipe tobacco, which is equivalent to categorizing “houses” as being the same as “houses that are on fire”: the former is desirable and generally safe, while the latter is neither of those things.

Among the rules are ones that would put all vaping products through an extremely expensive FDA process – just like the one that resulted in approval of all those FDA-approved products you hear the law firms talking about on television – before they could be sold. The effect of this is that small companies, such as many located in Ohio, would have to close, not because their products can’t pass the test but because it’s too expensive – costing millions of dollars – even to try.

“This would cost a million dollars per product – each one has to be tested separately – and there’s no way small businesses like ours could ever afford that,” said Stephan Lewis, manager of Vape Lab by Mission Vapor, located at 11 W. State St., when I talked with him about the issue last week.

Like most vaping products companies, his is family owned. It formulates a range of vaping liquids – “juice” to users – in clean-room laboratory conditions, employing perfectly legal ingredients. Indeed, vaping equipment manufacturers make a point of using for the wicks in their devices not just cotton but organic cotton, lest any wayward chemical get introduced into users’ lungs. And there is no combustion, no smoke at all.

The fact is, the FDA is in cahoots with big tobacco companies. You may remember something called the “tobacco settlement” – the 1998 agreement between the government and the four biggest tobacco companies. It was supposed to enrich the government as nothing ever before had. States, who were to share in the proceeds, had the money spent before they got it. It was happy-days-are-here-again.

Except they never got most of the anticipated money. People quit smoking in record numbers instead. In part, that was because e-cigarettes and vaping gave them an alternative.

The tobacco companies saw that many were turning to e-cigs and vaping, which are cheaper and at least safer than smoking (I would argue that they’re safe, period, and there’s no reliable evidence to contradict me) and decided they wanted a piece of the action. With its new rules, the FDA gives big tobacco not just a piece but all of the action. Big tobacco can afford to jump through the FDA’s hoops. And with big tobacco holding a monopoly, the money starts flowing from those companies to the government once again.

USA Today, the flagship newspaper of what’s left of Gannett, endorsed the new regulations, saying, “Last year, 16 percent of high-school students used e-cigarettes at least once in the past month, making the devices more popular than traditional cigarettes among teens, according to a national survey by the federal government.” Ah, so much to say about that one sentence. The first thing is that if kids are stopping smoking and vaping instead, that’s a good thing. (And it’s to be noted that selling e-cigs and vaping juice to teens is already illegal in many places and banned by the industry’s code of practices.) The fact is, that teen smoking has declined precipitously, and vaping is part of the reason.

The New York Times made short work of the government survey when it came out: “From 2011 to 2014, the share of high-school students who smoked traditional cigarettes declined substantially, to 9 percent from 16 percent, and use of cigars and pipes ebbed too. The shift suggested that some teenage smokers may be using e-cigarettes to quit.”

“My customers are in their late 20s and 30s,” said Lewis last week. “And some older, too.”

Had there been a USA Today at the time, it would have no doubt editorialized in favor of the government program a generation ago that urged landowners to plant multi-flora roses as “living hedges,” which preceded the government program to eradicate multi-flora roses, which had gone wild here and elsewhere. The paper might well have praised the benefits of the introduction of the Asian lady bug to these shores.

The government is not infallible. And the new regulations involving vaping and e-cigs promise to be one of its most expensive errors.

“We know that smoking kills people,” said Vape Lab’s Corey Sedwick. “And we know that people are switching from smoking to vaping, which is saving lives. But now the FDA wants to put vaping companies out of business. Where does that make any sense?”

Good question.

Editor's note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at dep@drippingwithirony.com.

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