This month the principal architect of America’s nicotine policy regulation, Mitch Zeller, will retire as head of FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products. His career highlight might be the arbitrary outlawing of nearly all nicotine vaping products, which are the single most effective smoking cessation method ever devised.
But that’s just Mr. Zeller’s latest ignominy. Back the frame out and behold the carnival of policy ineptitude that has marked his tenure as tobacco czar.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, for the first time in 20 years, cigarette sales are rising. That reverses a downward trend that had seen its steepest decline during the emergence of nicotine vaping.
The Wall Street analysts who focus on tobacco companies make consensus recommendations to buy those stocks. And what’s the reason? Because they are citing all the regulations, bans and taxes that Mr. Zeller and his government colleagues are inflicting on nicotine vaping, and they know that means less competition for cigarettes. Let me repeat — these are not journalists or activists or politicians. They are ice-cold rational financial analysts working for highly sophisticated institutional investment houses.
There’s evidence galore that they are correct. In every jurisdiction where taxes or bans go into effect, cigarette smoking rates begin to spike almost immediately. Careful analysis of the recent congressional vape tax proposal alone predicted it would drive more than 2 million Americans back into smoking cigarettes.
I can tell you firsthand that scores of vaping businesses of every size are going bankrupt daily — many thousands in just the last year. That means investments obliterated, employees laid off, inventory junked, dreams destroyed — and worst of all, the customers who relied on those businesses so they could quit smoking are now returning in droves to cigarettes.
According to Mr. Zeller, more Americans are dying from smoking-related illnesses than ever before in American history — about 480,000 people annually, by his count. No wonder Mr. Zeller is trying to burnish his legacy by insisting in his public remarks that “we try to find some middle ground” in the public conversation, which he thinks has become too divisive.
So let’s take a close look at what he has said about nicotine vaping policy. These are his verbatim arguments — and ones that I agree with wholeheartedly.
He did a TED talk in which he spoke about vaping regulation and said, “If we do this the right way, it will allow more smokers to quit, so we should encourage and support innovation of less harmful products for adults who need them.”
He spoke at the NYU School of Medicine and said, “We have to look at nicotine differently because the continuum is real, and we need to move people down that continuum away from cigarettes and toward safer nicotine replacements.”
He said he wants Americans to “think about e-cigarettes in a properly regulated marketplace as something that could be of benefit to adult smokers who are trying to transition away from cigarettes.”
And why is that proving to be so difficult, he was asked. Due to the “profound misperceptions about nicotine safety,” he explained. He talked about junk science, slanted journalism in mainstream media, scaremongering from activist groups and straight-up lies from elected officials. “Those misperceptions need to be debunked,” he told a conference of medical colleagues.
But back in his office, in the bureaucratic shadows of FDA Headquarters, Mr. Zeller has been doing the precise and total opposite of what he’s recommending publicly to the American people.
On his watch and at his direction, millions of vaping products were outlawed last year, more than 99.999% of the market. Does that seem like the encouragement of vaping?
It was Mr. Zeller who selected an ancient product from Vuse, one that nobody uses, as the first product to get his blessing for the market. Does that seem like he’s helping innovation?
He has done absolutely nothing to set the record straight on the stone-cold fact that the EVALI outbreak had zero to do with nicotine vaping — even though his colleagues are perpetuating that falsehood. According to the government itself, that outright deception has caused a majority of Americans to believe that nicotine vaping is more dangerous than cigarettes. Does that seem like a way to debunk misperceptions about nicotine?
And that’s why Mr. Zeller’s reign of error at the FDA has been so egregious and contemptible. Because he knows better, this isn’t just a mistake or some bureaucratic oversight. He knows full well what’s the right thing to do — and instead, he misled the public and did all he could to prevent it from happening.
On the way out the door, Mr. Zeller is parading around, expecting applause. Instead, FDA is going to get a revolt.
• Amanda Wheeler is president of American Vapor Manufacturers.