Experts Poke Holes in Bloomberg’s Multi-Million Anti-Vaping Campaign
An article published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy has raised serious questions about the efficacy of Michael Bloomberg’s multi-million dollar anti-vaping campaign.
The former NYC mayor and businessman has poured millions of dollars into funding anti-vaping efforts since 2019. Bloomberg’s money and influence have been vital in many state and local initiatives to ban the sale of flavored vaping products or to ban e-cigarettes altogether.
With public-health groups like the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, Bloomberg has pushed an anti-vaping narrative that the article argues may be doing more harm than good.
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Bloomberg’s Tobacco Control History
Michael Bloomberg has been an avid tobacco control supporter for close to two decades. Starting in the mid-2000s, his foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, has given millions of dollars to non-profit organizations and NGOs like the World Health Organization to strengthen tobacco control policies worldwide.
Starting in 2018, however – the year the CDC declared youth vaping an “epidemic” – the billionaire has re-focused his efforts against e-cigarettes. Bloomberg, along with Matthew Myers, the chairman of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (a recipient of Bloomberg’s frequent largesse), has been the most vocal supporters for blanket e-cigarette bans in the country.
Bloomberg and Myers effectively declared war on vaping in 2019. They published a jointly-written op-ed in the New York Times accusing Big Tobacco of addicting a new generation to nicotine with e-cigarettes and e-liquids with kid-friendly names. Soon after Bloomberg and Myers published their op-ed, five states effectively banned flavored e-cigarettes from the market.
The Arguments Against Bloomberg
Bloomberg’s success in convincing even those who had previously supported vaping as a harm reduction tool – like the Truth Initiative and the American Cancer Society – to denounce them has led to even more converts. The momentum this movement has gained is due in large part to its singular focus on a complete ban of all e-cigarettes in the United States.
Bloomberg’s adherents reject nuance and counter-arguments with their tried-and-true practice of warning against:
- The dangers of nicotine addiction for young people
- The gateway theory that argues kids who vape are more likely to begin other illicit habits
- Vaping nicotine is as dangerous as smoking
This all-or-nothing approach is misguided, says many tobacco-control and harm reduction experts. From this side of the argument, although not 100% risk-free, vaping is much less dangerous than smoking. This side of the argument is also not populated by a radical fringe of bought experts spouting junk science.
The Most Prominent Critics
They include Kenneth Warner, a founding member of the Truth Initiative and current dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. Warner lauds Bloomberg for the former mayor’s tobacco control efforts in the past but says that Bloomberg’s anti-vaping campaign goes too far in demonizing e-cigarettes.
Warner and others in the harm-reduction camp argue that painting e-cigarettes as the villain discourages smokers from quitting. Those who would otherwise leave smoking to vape are now being bombarded with anti-vaping rhetoric – not to mention real-world consequences like flavor bans and higher taxes – so much so that they are not even attempting to quit.
This wholescale rejection of the potential of e-cigarettes as harm reduction tools does not even consider the harm being done to adult smokers interested in quitting. It leaves few options for smokers who want to stop but have found other methods (abstinence, nicotine replacement therapies, or medication) ineffective.
Making things even more complicated is that even the scientific community is divided on e-cigarettes. Some studies point to the fact that vaping is 95% less dangerous than smoking cigarettes. Others say that nicotine plays havoc on developing brains, which makes e-cigarettes especially dangerous to young people.
The latter argument is the most oft-cited when people speak about the reasons for banning e-cigarettes. But the article found that “some scientists analyze the very same data and reach radically different conclusions”. The article quotes experts who are uncertain about the role nicotine plays in brain development in young people. Others mentioned in the report state the opposite as if it were gospel.
Only, harm reduction advocates do not have the deep pockets of Bloomberg behind them. Those who argue that e-cigarettes could potentially help harm reduction are finding themselves increasingly isolated among their peers. While those who view some good coming from e-cigarettes are derided, those against them are receiving funding hand-over-foot from Bloomberg Philanthropies and Bloomberg himself.
The massive influx of funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies has provided anti-vapers with the resources necessary to take on the tobacco lobby. The problem with this myopia is that other public health risks – especially for young people – have been ignored. Case in point: The San Francisco city council’s move to ban sales of all e-cigarette devices in the city.
The initiative set up a decisive battle between the two camps: anti-vapers and Big Tobacco. In years before, Big Tobacco would have outspent the competition lobbying for the initiative to be voted down. But Bloomberg spent $9.4 million of his own money to bolster their focus. Big Tobacco spent more, but the initiative passed.
People over 21 can still buy cigarettes and marijuana in the city, but not e-cigarettes. Although anti-vaping advocates believe they are doing a public good, their campaigns have had the reverse effect, which they also overlook. In places where anti-vaping laws and restrictions have been passed, cigarette sales have increased. The data bears this out:
- The 95% tax on e-cigarettes in Minnesota led to a 5% increase in smoking rates
- A 75% tax increase on tobacco and e-cigarettes in Massachusetts led to increases in cigarette sales in neighboring states
- Although unrelated to Bloomberg, Nova Scotia enacted a flavor ban in 2020, which only served to increase cigarette sales
“If Teens Try One Thing, They’re Going to Try Other Things”
The anti-vaping camp also believes that it is e-cigarette companies and Big Tobacco that are to blame. At the same time, ignoring the fact that young people are more prone to risky and experimental behavior. Studies that purport to prove a causal link between teens vaping and more dangerous behavior, later on, reveals characteristics about those particular youths.
They do not necessarily show a conclusive link between vaping and more risky behavior. Many harm-reduction experts also point out that cigarette use among teenagers has been steadily falling since the 2010s. The most precipitous drop came when e-cigarettes became widely available in the US between 2014 and 2015.
But the anti-vaping lobby has found success by centering their arguments about protecting children and young people, which makes their message more palatable. The downside is that no one speaks for the nearly 400,000 Americans who die of smoking-related illnesses each year.
One thing that everyone agrees on is that young people should not be vaping. The harm-reduction camp believes that age restrictions should prevent that. However, the anti-vaping camp believes that lax enforcement and loopholes do not prevent youth vaping, which is why they argue for total bans.
The anti-vaping lobby seems to be winning. The CDC reported that e-cigarette use among teenagers went down in 2020. Whether that has to do with the outbreak of a vaping-related illness in 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic, or the full-court press to demonize e-cigarettes is hard to say.
But while teen vaping rates have declined, the deaths from smoking-related illnesses remain stubbornly high. The CDC also reported total deaths from smoking-related diseases in the US to be around 480,000, almost as many deaths caused by the novel coronavirus. While Michael Bloomberg and his foundation have contributed much to the fight against tobacco, their dogmatic approach to e-cigarettes should perhaps be softened so that more smokers do not die so needlessly.