Reason, Hit & Miss: smoking edition

No, e-cig juice isn’t “poison by the barrel.” Nor are cigarette taxes an evil plot.

Libertarians, like stopped clocks, are right twice a day. Jacob Sullum at Reason Hit & Run has a fine time taking down an astoundingly silly piece in the New York Times, which uses the fact that nicotine is toxic in large doses to claim vendors are “selling a poision by the barrel.” Of course e-cigarette “juice” comes with some risk of accidental poisoning, but so does gasoline. And gasoline doesn’t have any promise of eliminating hundreds of thousands of smoking deaths per year.

I’d say that the NYT piece reads like parody of public-health hysteria, but in fact the fringes of the public-health community do a form of self-parody beyond the capacity even of The Onion. (Had you heard that people who don’t use e-cigarettes in order to quit cigarettes don’t quit cigarettes? And that therefore e-cigarettes aren’t helpful in quitting smoking? Srsly.)

Score one for the libertarians.

On the other hand, another Hit-and-Runner furiously denounces the Maryland legislature for raising tobacco taxes, a demonstrably effective means of reducing smoking, because a predictable side effect will be increased smuggling from states with lower taxes. Libertarian conclusion: cigarette taxes are evil. Alternative conclusion: cigarette taxation should be a federal rather than a state matter, or alternative the federal government should provide incentives for high-tax states to moderate their levies and for low-tax states to raise theirs. After all, it takes two to make a price gradient, and the health benefits of coordinating on higher rather than lower taxes are obvious. (Jon Caulkins and I argue for doing something to protect poor elderly addicted smokers from the personal-budget impact of higher taxes, but of course as long as e-cigarettes are taxed at lower rates than tobacco cigarettes they have a self-help alternative.) Of course it’s all due to “politicians’ appetite for other people’s money,” as if citizens didn’t want public services or as if public services didn’t have to be paid for. Since, outside of Libertarianland, we have to tax something, why not tax things we want less of (bad habits, pollution, and congestion) rather than things we want more of, such as work?

What’s ultimately boring about libertarianism is the utter predictability of most of its adherents. You don’t have to ask them what they think about an issue, or bother them with facts: all you have to do is compare the issue with their prejudices.

Footnote Sullum rather lost his temper when I pointed out that his over-the-top attacks on President Obama’s cannabis policies reflect the partisan bias of the people who pay the bills at Reason.com. But when the House of Representatives passed a bill that in effect demanded that the Obama Administration crack down on cannabis legalization in Washington State and Colorado, Sullum criticized the bill (while of course piling on examples of what he taxes to be the Obama Administration’s lawlessness). But he never quite manages to say that what the House Republicans unanimously voted for amounts to a demand that people go to federal prison for selling cannabis in states that have chosen to regulate the drug rather than prohibiting it. This is an issue on which the Administration and all but five of the House Democrats came down on Sullum’s side of the question, while all the House Republicans came down on the other side. But somehow that issues in an even-handed denunciation of “partisanship” rather than a clear statement that anyone who wants more liberal laws about cannabis ought to punish the Republicans by voting Democratic, or at least staying home.

Note also the difference in Sullum’s language. He turned his own misunderstanding of the Controlled Substances Act, and the court cases interpreting that act, into an accusation that the President “had not read” the law. Sullum treats the House Republicans much more gently; their treatment of drug issues is “the weakest part of their case against [Obama].” In fact, of course, it’s Constitutionally illiterate. The Congress passes laws, but the decision to prosecute – or not – resides in the executive branch. Sullum and his colleagues play for the Red Team; that’s their right, and their occupation. The readers of Reason, however, should be aware of the fact, and take what is written there with the requisite complement of sodium chloride.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

10 thoughts on “Reason, Hit & Miss: smoking edition”

  1. Mark,

    I have read the summary to which you have linked, and I don't think it supports the claim you are making about it. The point of the study seems to be that smokers who used e-cigarettes to quit smoking, did not report quit more frequently or more easily than those who did not use e-cigarettes. Because it was explicitly stated to be a study of people who used e-cigarettes to quit, I don't see any support for ridiculing the study as being limited to finding that "people who don't use e-cigarettes to quit cigarettes don't quit cigarettes."

    If it's true that 85% of smokers who said that were using e-cigarettes to quit smoking did not quit more frequently than non users of e-cigarettes, why is it ridiculous to conclude that e-cigarettes aren't helpful in quitting smoking?

    1. Mitch, the short explanation is that there is a difference between wanting to quit and and trying to quit imminently. Fewer than 10% were going to try to quit within 30 days, and fewer than 50% had any intention of quitting within the next six month.

      This corresponds with my own experience. I wanted to quit for years before I did. It took me a few weeks of back-and-forth between cigarettes and ecigs before I was ready to try for real. Then it was another couple weeks before I learned that it was conflicting with the Zyban (not in a dangerous way, rather the Zyban was just cancelling out the ecigs), and then I was off to the races. I stopped counting the days after 25 or so, stopped counting the weeks after 10, and had to go back and look at a calendar to realize that I hit the six month mark.

      Unlike others here, I am obviously not a dispassionate observer. After years of trying and failing and trying and failing I found something that worked for me. Worked marvelously. It wasn't actually easy. But unlike the other things I tried, it was something I could do.

  2. "Of course e-cigarette “juice” comes with some risk of accidental poisoning, but so does gasoline."

    I think the point here is that the public doesn't regard e-cigarette juice as anything like gasoline. They don't keep this stuff in the garage, they probably don't use gloves to work with it, and I doubt they realize that its toxicity, and therefore safety, can vary considerably in an unregulated environment. To the extent that the NYT piece makes those things clearer, I don't see the need to ridicule it.

    True, the article should have mentioned the potential of e-cigarettes as a safer alternative to conventional smoking. But I'm not sure why that negates looking at some of the health issues associated with an unregulated market for liquid nicotine.

    1. Liquid nicotine?

      It's really a pretty dilute solution, isn't it? Ten or so mg/mL? I know the LD-50 for humans is in the neighborhood of 30 mg/Kg, so we're talking about drinking several high dose cartridges.

      1. From the piece:

        "The nicotine levels in e-liquids varies. Most range between 1.8 percent and 2.4 percent, concentrations that can cause sickness, but rarely death, in children. But higher concentrations, like 10 percent or even 7.2 percent, are widely available on the Internet. A lethal dose at such levels would take “less than a tablespoon,” according to Dr. Cantrell, from the poison control system in California. “Not just a kid. One tablespoon could kill an adult,” he said."

        1. There is a disconnect somewhere. I'm not a vaper — no interest in it other than its potential for harm reduction.

          When I looked using the Google machine, the highest concentration cartridges I found were 20 mg/mL. This stuff is in PEG-400, which has a density of about 1.13 g/mL, which makes 20 mg/mL about 1.8% by weight. But for a 60 Kg adult, at 30 mg/Kg it's 1.8 grams of nicotine for LD-50. That's 90 mL, which is considerably more than a tablespoon (15 mL, so it's more like 6 Tbsp).

          I'm not saying this stuff shouldn't be locked away from kids — clearly it should be. But it doesn't appear to me to be any more inherently hazardous than many other things we keep around our homes, like pesticides.

          1. I have no dog in this fight either. Just interested in a sounder account of its costs/benefits, that's all.

            I can't really comment on the concentrations here, except to wonder whether there are other chemicals besides PEG-400 that are causing the high concentrations Dr. Cantrell refers to? Not sure.

            In any case, I guess one could shoot him an email for a better explanation of the evidence behind his claim.

    2. The ejuice doesn't have to be treated like gasoline due to the comparatively low concentration of nicotine. It is, however, extremely important that people are made aware of how dangerous this is to young'uns. Only one of my suppliers has what I would consider adequate warning on the bottles.

  3. Look, I agree ideological consistency is boring. And I can't stand many positions taken by libertarians.

    But nonetheless, I am glad they exist. Oftentimes, the Overton Window defines as "unserious" a bunch of viewpoints that actually take liberty seriously. I think you can argue, for instance, that we are at least lurching towards a more rational marijuana policy in part because libertarians and others fought the conventional wisdom that any policy that allowed people to use narcotics would lead to the destruction of society and morals and massive addiction.

    I don't think any ideology has a monopoly on the truth. But I'm glad there are competing ideologies to ride their hobbyhorses.

  4. I am neutral to slightly in favor of e-cigs – especially if they came with appropriate ingredient labels for adults to inform themselves regardless of whether the adult is trying to quit or would just like a more socially acceptable way to smoke. As a bystander I can also appreciate the benefit of not having cigarette smoke to contend with. However as the parent of a middle schooler I can report that at least as currently marketed and sold, today's e-cigs are clearly an introduction to nicotine for that age group and are widely available to pre-teen and teen-age users. There is also substantial peer pressure to use them.

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